The Benefit Bank Gives Families a Financial Boost

by Candi Helseth

The Benefit Bank

At a free medical event in Greenville this summer, Somera Samuels (left), a counselor with The Benefit Bank, assists a client with an application.

The South Carolina Office of Rural Health (SCORH) is the first Office of Rural Health to sponsor The Benefit Bank (TBB), a free, nationwide web-based service that assists underserved, low-income Americans by linking them to public funds that often go unused and unclaimed. The Benefit Bank of South Carolina (TBBSC) currently provides outreach to programs such as food assistance, medical benefits, student aid, energy assistance, tax filing and voter registration. TBBSC screens consumers for benefit eligibility in several areas with a single, centralized application process.

TBBSC-identified food assistance and medical benefits helped pulled his family through its financial crisis, according to “Norman” (a user who preferred not to be identified). Norman’s employer downsized and he was laid off in April 2009. A knee injury limited Norman’s ability to find work and having to care for their three young children, one of them severely handicapped, kept his wife from seeking work outside the home. Norman was receiving unemployment so he didn’t think he was eligible for other benefits, but a friend convinced him to apply to TBBSC. He was pleasantly surprised to learn his family qualified for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) and medical assistance to help cover surgery on his knee.

“Every year, more than $800 million in federal work supports are not claimed by South Carolina families who are eligible for tax credits, public benefits and student financial aid,” TBBSC Director Karen Papouchado said. “The Benefit Bank cuts through the processing barriers and there is no dual data entry. People might come in to get their taxes done and find out they’re eligible for food stamps based on the information from their income tax forms. It’s very user friendly. We have trained counselors that help people complete the necessary applications to determine their eligibility.

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation funded TBBSC for one year, beginning in October 2009. SCORH accepted fiscal responsibility for continuing the program. Nearly 75 percent of South Carolina is designated as rural, according to SCORH, and rural South Carolina has a poverty rate of 16.2 percent compared to 13 percent in urban areas of the state.

Mary Wilson

The Benefit Bank counselor Mary Wilson (right) helps Vanna Perrin find available services.

“The Benefit Bank is an excellent tool,” SCORH CEO Graham Adams said. “It was a natural fit for the South Carolina Office of Rural Health in that it has allowed us to build stronger relationships with community-based facilities that have a health and human services mission. Linking low and moderate income residents with the services they so desperately need has served to greatly strengthen SCORH’s mission of improving access to quality health care services in rural and underserved communities.”

So far, TBBSC has helped find $8 million in credits, primarily in SNAP and health benefits. More than 350 host sites, which include faith-based organizations, medical clinics and other community entities, provide physical space for the computer, printer and Internet access necessary to complete applications. About 1,100 volunteer counselors across the state assist consumers with the application process.

“It’s so rewarding to see what a difference this makes in people’s lives,” Papouchado said. “When we told (Norman) the amount of benefits he could receive, he was a changed man. He even said he was thinking about going back to school to get a degree in drafting. I told him to go for it and call me when he was ready for a FAFSA application interview.”

She added that TBBSC has also given a voice to rural residents, who were at a greater disadvantage because lack of transportation and long distances made them less likely to request assistance.

“They are more likely to ask for assistance from someone they know and trust in their community,” she said. “Now they have the advantage of having this group of civic-minded volunteers who are more economically strong and have a sense of wanting to help low-income people and knowing what these people should receive and what they deserve.”

Nationwide, TBB has helped identify SNAP benefits for 6,314 households, providing a total of $17,715,228. It has served more than 61,000 clients who received federal tax refunds in 2010 totaling $58,282,991 and earned income tax credits in the amount of $20,407,825.

In addition to South Carolina, other states offering TBB services include Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Solutions for Progress, an organization founded in 1991, developed the program and provides support for participating states. Solutions for Progress is a “mission-driven company committed to assisting low and moderate-income individuals and families to sustainably move out of poverty through the application of technology that improves the efficiency of government to deliver assistance that can be obtained easily and with dignity.”

For more information, see the national office of The Benefit Bank. Or email Matty Hart, National Director for Public Engagement at Solutions for Progress, mhart@solutionsforprogress.com.


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