Pauline Abernathy testifies before Philadelphia City Council | Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention

Testimony to the Philadelphia Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention

Public Hearing, October 10, 2019

by Pauline Abernathy, Chief Strategy Officer, Benefits Data Trust

Thank you, Philadelphia City Council President Clarke, Council Members Domb and Quiñones-Sanchez, Special Committee Co-Chairs, civic and business leaders, and everyone else who came today to share their thoughts and insights about how to reduce poverty in Philadelphia.

My name is Pauline Abernathy and I am the Chief Strategy Officer of Benefits Data Trust (BDT). BDT is a national nonprofit organization headquartered here in Philadelphia with a mission to help people live healthier, more independent lives by creating smarter ways to access essential benefits and services. Each year, BDT helps tens of thousands of people make ends meet using a mix of data, technology, targeted outreach, and policy change. Since 2005, BDT has screened more than one million households, securing over $7 billion in cumulative benefits and services. In Philadelphia alone, we have helped more than 110,000 Philadelphians secure more than $330 million in benefits to help pay for food, healthcare, housing, childcare, and other basic needs.

We are proud of the fact that many of our employees exemplify how benefits can help people through rough times and on a path to a better life. Let me share the story of one staff member who I will call Maria. 2011 was a very dark time in her life. As Maria puts it, she had three children, a pack of hot dogs in her freezer, and nothing in her bank account despite having worked since age 14. She literally didn’t know how she was going to feed her kids. She tried applying for SNAP and found the experience utterly demoralizing. I’m thrilled to say that today Maria is a Benefits Outreach Specialist helping others on their own journeys, and her children are in college.

Last year, Mayor Kenney came to BDT’s office across the street from here to mark the tenth anniversary of BenePhilly, a city-wide initiative to combat poverty and increase economic security. BenePhilly started as a partnership with the city and state to help low-income seniors apply over the phone for benefits to help them pay for groceries, housing and healthcare. In 2014, with support from the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, BenePhilly expanded to include in-person assistance through a network of community partners using our software.

Today, low-income people of all ages can walk into BenePhilly Centers run by organizations they know and trust and be screened for up to 19 benefits and receive help applying while being treated with dignity. I want to take a moment to commend the outstanding work of our partners, including Catholic Social Services, Esperanza, Impact Services Corporation, Penn Asian Senior Services, Philadelphia FIGHT, Project HOME, SEAMAAC, UESF, and United Communities Southeast Philadelphia.

Through BDT and our partners, last year alone, 5,200 Philadelphia households received an average of $5,100 in critical benefits – which translates to $26 million in benefits for the city as a whole.

The return on investment is compelling. A recently published randomized experiment conducted by economists at MIT’s Poverty Lab found our targeted outreach tripled SNAP enrollment and generated $20 in benefits for every $1 invested.

While there is no single solution to poverty, benefits provide a bridge to economic mobility for low–income adults and families. It is difficult to focus on getting a job if you don’t know how you’re going to feed your kids at night or where they are going to sleep. So it is not surprising that rigorous research shows that benefits improve health, employment, earnings, and educational achievement.

And as you heard from Ira Goldstein of The Reinvestment Fund today, poverty is by no means limited to people without jobs. The reality is that many people employed in part-time, minimum–wage jobs are in poverty.

Despite the work of BenePhilly, thousands of struggling Philadelphians are still not receiving the benefits for which they are eligible. We estimate that Philadelphians are collectively leaving $450 million in untapped federal and state benefits on the table every year. To put this number in perspective, $450 million is more than the City spends annually on public and behavioral health ($175 million), human services ($119 million), parks and recreation ($68 million) and SEPTA ($88 million) combined.

This estimate only takes into consideration five programs for which we could make reliable estimates – EITC, SNAP, Medicaid, PACE/PACENET prescription assistance, and the commonwealth’s Property Tax and Rent Relief program. Adding in other critical benefits such as WIC, Medicare Savings Program, and the Child Tax Credit would further boost the number.

There are several reasons why eligible people don’t apply for benefits. Lack of information is one — many don’t know that assistance is available or that they qualify. Others need help applying. The process can be complicated, and each benefit can require a separate application. As anyone in this room who has struggled to file their taxes knows, the language on government forms can be confusing. It is doubly so for individuals with low literacy or for whom English is not their first language.

While these barriers are real, they are entirely surmountable and addressing them should be part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility. As Narrowing the Gap suggested, Philadelphia can dramatically improve benefits access by leveraging existing access points, technology, and data sources. Where people cannot be automatically enrolled, we should alert them to their eligibility and make it easy to apply, either in person, by phone, or online.

A few years ago, there was basically only one way to do your banking, namely, to go to a bank and interact with a teller in person. With the proliferation of mobile phones and apps, the financial world changed. Banks quickly recognized there was no one-size-fits-all approach that is good for everyone, and they came up with new ways of doing business using technology.

Imagine if technology serving families in economic distress were up to par with technology serving the financial sector. Imagine if our neighbors in need got help without having to ask for it. This Committee and the City of Philadelphia can do that. We offer two main recommendations.

First, leverage existing access points across Philadelphia. One of the biggest opportunities to achieve impact at scale is by leveraging existing infrastructure, institutions, and community organizations. For instance, our City’s libraries and schools create opportunities for people to be screened and apply for benefits at places they already know and visit. Similarly, the network of Career Links and training programs operated by Philadelphia Works offer opportunities to screen and assist job seekers in applying for benefits. The City’s RISE programs are another example of an access point that can be leveraged to assist returning citizens who were previously incarcerated.

Technology-driven tools have made it possible for people to begin the process of applying for benefits from just about anywhere. For example, with support from the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, we worked with the Campaign for Working Families during the most recent tax season to pilot a new tool called Benefits Launch. People waiting for free tax assistance at the VITA sites could use Benefits Launch to see if they were likely eligible for up to 19 benefits. The screening takes 10 minutes or less, can be completed on a mobile phone or tablet, identifies the benefits people are likely eligible for, and provides options to apply in person, over the phone, or online. BDT can follow up with text messages to help people follow through on the path they select. Because Benefits Launch is adaptable it could even be used in a canvassing effort in high-need neighborhoods.

Second, leverage existing data for targeted outreach and streamlined enrollment. BDT has been able to scale its work in six states using a model that combines data matching, technology, and targeted outreach. For example, by cross matching Medicaid and SNAP enrollment lists, one can identify people who are unenrolled and likely eligible for SNAP by virtue of the fact that they qualified for Medicaid. We then conduct targeted outreach to the identified people in partnership with trusted state or local entities to let them know they are likely eligible and offer assistance applying.

In New York City, with support from the Robin Hood foundation, we have worked with the City Department of Social Services to conduct proactive outreach to those on Medicaid but not SNAP and use verified information from Medicaid applications to greatly streamline SNAP enrollment.

Many Philadelphia agencies have data that can be used to conduct targeted outreach to people who are likely eligible for help paying for essentials like groceries, healthcare, and housing. For example, the Philadelphia Water Department and Philadelphia Gas Works offer discounts to low–income families who may also qualify for other federal, state and local assistance. Similarly, some Medicaid managed care organizations that operate in Philadelphia are interested in strategies focused on the “social determinants of health,” including promoting good nutrition for their members. Data matching can identify members enrolled in Medicaid but not in SNAP and provide the basis for targeted outreach. The Health Department may have similar opportunities to increase SNAP enrollment among people who use the City Health Centers. Finally, all families in public housing have limited incomes, and it may be possible to work with the Philadelphia Housing Authority on a data match and outreach campaign.

By leveraging existing access points, technology, and data sources, the City can literally secure tens of millions of dollars of federal and state benefits for Philadelphians – benefits that have been proven to improve student test scores, graduation rates, earnings, employment, and health, create jobs, and stimulate the local economy. We know how to do it. We simply need the will to do it. When combined with other proven and innovative policies and services encompassing housing, jobs, and education, more Philadelphians will be able to look forward to a brighter future.

BDT would like to thank the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, City of Philadelphia Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Leo & Peggy Pierce Family Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Rockefeller Foundation, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and the Walmart Foundation for their generous support for BenePhilly.