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Unable to work because she has lupus and arthritis, Robin Gentry suffered silently in South Philadelphia, living on a Social Security disability check that never seemed to stretch 31 days.
Gentry, 59, is separated and lives with two of her five adult children. Gentrification in her up-and-coming neighborhood is causing the taxes on the house she and her husband bought years ago to skyrocket. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her children's ability to stay employed.
"It was a struggle," she said.
Then came what she called a "miracle" in the mail. A letter from out of the blue informed Gentry, who worked on a cleanup crew at Lincoln Financial Field before illness struck, that she might be eligible for public benefits. A nonprofit known as Benefits Data Trust offered to analyze 19 federal and state programs to discover money and other forms of aid to which Gentry was legitimately entitled.
Gentry accepted BDT's help, and now she receives Medicaid and $140 a month in food stamps.
"Life got very much easier," she said. "The letter was a wonderful thing — exciting. I didn't know how to balance food and bills. These people reached out to others who need help desperately and didn't know where to turn."
You know those credit card pitches that fill your mailbox? Imagine instead receiving a letter that, rather than trying to separate you from your money, tells you how to access food, health care and lower-cost prescriptions in times of trouble.
That's the basic principle behind BDT, an organization headquartered in Center City that serves Pennsylvania, New York City, Maryland, Colorado and the Carolinas. In Philadelphia, BDT has worked since 2008 with 10 community organizations in a network known as BenePhilly.
Last year alone, Philadelphians left an estimated $450 million in benefits unclaimed, said Trooper Sanders, BDT's CEO. Nationwide, Americans were owed $60 billion they never asked for.
In 2019, BDT helped 6,500 Philadelphia households secure an average of $4,000 each in benefits, equaling $26 million, organization data show. Strategies used to target and identify people eligible for credit cards are being employed by BDT to pinpoint those entitled to public benefits.
"It's one of the best tools we have in the city to help people in poverty," said City Councilmember Allan Domb.
Philadelphia contributes $1.3 million to BDT, which gets funding from various sources to bolster its $16.2 million annual budget, including the state of Pennsylvania, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"The city should be doubling and tripling that investment," said City Councilmember Maria Quinones-Sanchez. "It's helped folks who've been poor, and now it helps the new poor, affected by COVID-19, who don't know how to access help."
Many people are simply unaware that they're eligible for benefits. Or they believe that by asking for help, they're taking away from those "more deserving," BDT officials say. Many have lost jobs because of the pandemic and are experiencing difficulty navigating public-benefit bureaucracies for the first time.
By scouring government data of people eligible for or enrolled in at least one public benefit, BDT can identify thousands of individuals who are likely eligible for additional benefits, such as food stamps, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. BDT then reaches out to them via mail or text to help them fill out the forms to access help.
In Gentry's case, state data showed that her family had once tried to get SNAP benefits but was denied because officials determined that one of her sons made $1 more than the income threshold. He has since lost his job, clearing the way for aid to Gentry.
"When the pandemic really started to bite," said Sanders, "we saw a bump in people responding to letters we'd sent many months earlier. That indicates that need is really acute out there."
In fact, BenePhilly alone increased the number of SNAP applications it submitted on clients' behalf from 530 between Jan. 1 and March 15 — two days after the federal government declared a COVID-19 emergency — to 1,429 between March 16 and May 31, BDT figures show. That's an increase of nearly 170%.
BDT's work belies the widely held, though false, notion that overwhelming numbers of Americans are out to scam public-benefits programs by applying for money to snag dollars they don't deserve, Sanders said.
Because Americans didn't claim $60 billion they were legitimately owed last year, "there's your proof that people are not just grabbing money off the streets," he said.
So, why do people fail to ask for help they deserve? Aside from simply not knowing they're eligible, a leading reason is the sense that they don't deserve it. "It's the perception that there's a finite bucket, and if you drink a glass of water from it, a thirsty neighbor might not get it," Sanders said. "But there's enough for anyone in need."
Another factor is the difficulty of the paperwork. Poverty experts have said that government bureaucrats deliberately make forms for SNAP and other programs that discourage applicants.
Then, there's simple pride.
Debora Jennings, 60, of Cleona, Pennsylvania, said that when she received a letter from BDT saying her family was eligible for SNAP benefits along with the Medicaid it was already getting, her husband was "dead-set against it. But I did it anyway."
Jennings has rheumatoid arthritis and has undergone surgeries for endometrial, uterine and cervical cancers. She gets some money being a foster parent. Her husband, Jay, also 60, works for a car dealership, but only part-time because he has a broken back.
"Jay took the idea of getting food stamps as him not taking care of his family," Jennings said. "'Swallow your pride,' I told him. Cancers and a broken back? Not having enough food to eat is crazy. The food stamps are a godsend."
An emotional reaction to receiving unexpected help from BDT is common, said Yvonne Cintron, a call-center supervisor for the organization. Cintron and her colleagues help callers complete applications over the phone, then submit the forms to county assistance offices for processing.
"People will say, 'Please, please help me.' Then they're super-surprised when we can. They always thank us," Cintron said. "It's a weight lifted off their shoulders. It's all really sweet."
Originally published on NewsDay on November 12, 2020.