Friday, October 17, 2008

Public Benefits for Economic Development

An important theme of the Obama campaign is that the government should invest in people. That our future will depend on providing the broader public with access to higher education and health care. Employment opportunities are also needed. What role do public benefits, still thought of by many as "welfare," play in helping individuals and communities get ahead?

Many folks involved in workforce development are now thinking about public benefits in terms of "work supports." This includes government-sponsored programs such as Food Stamps, Health Insurance, Child Care subsidies, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Theoritically, these kinds of supports can help people stay in school, get jobs, and maybe even move up. Maximizing work supports can also boost regional economies by drawing in outside dollars that circulate locally. But understanding and applying for different programs is complicated and sometimes demoralizing. The result is that in the last year over $35 billion in public benefits went unclaimed.

One recent idea for packaging benefits comes from an entity called the Benefit Bank. The backbone of the Benefit Bank is fairly low-tech and low-budget. Volunteer counselors are stationed at churches or community organizations with basically a desk, a computer, and a printer. With a few hours of training, these counselors can operate a computer program that asks simple questions of clients and then matches them up with public benefits that they qualify for. The program actually fills out the application for the client. Kind of like the Turbo-Tax for public benefits.


Bob Giloth said...

Other versions of increasing work support or benefit access include EarnBenefits, NetsToLadders, and Community Catalyst. You're right that what counts is how these technologies are adapted on the gorund with community organizations. And the most important thing is filing the application, not simply screening for eligibility

Robert Brand said...

I am associated with Solutions for Progress, the developers of The Benefit Bank. TBB is an expert system designed to maximize the value for families and individuals trying to get to self sufficiency. We are increasingly working with advocates in each state in which TBB is active through a set of interest portals. There is an Education Portal that includes our standard suite (Free Tax prep and filing plus a range of benefits -- SNAP, Healthcare, Prescription Drug coverage for seniors, Childcare, Energy Assistance and Voter Registration) as well as the FAFSA forms. The Health Portal concentrates on maximizing the number of users who get health insurance. The under development Re-Entry Portal offers a range of services to help people who have been incarcerated to build a workable life in community. There is also an Asset Building Portal and Seniors Portal. All TBB applications are complete and are electronically filed with the appropriate public agency. We also work with our partners in each state to simplify access to benefits.