Media Coverage: Philadelphians leave $450 million on the table in federal and state benefits annually

A Quarterly City Managers Report released on Feb. 16 revealed that Philadelphia could go into its 2022 fiscal year with a deficit of $450 million.

That same amount annually is left on the table in state and federal benefits by Philadelphia residents, as estimated by Benefits Data Trust.

Nationwide, that number on an annual basis reaches upwards of $60 billion for Americans.

Benefits Data Trust (BDT) is in the business of making sure as much of those funds go back to communities that need them most. Since starting in Philadelphia, PA, the organization has expanded its enrollment services to five other states, including New York, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Colorado.

It also offers policy and practice benefit assistance in 10 additional states across the country.

For Yvonne Cintron, a contact center supervisor at the organization, a common interaction with those that call to get help is shock. Many are elderly, and have no idea they qualify for some of the benefits they do.

“You don’t get a manual when you turn a certain age that says: ‘Call this place and they’re going to help you with benefits,’” said Cintron. “It would be nice if it came with your SSI or SSA, but it doesn’t.”

In Pennsylvania specifically, there are 16 benefits that BDT provides assistance for when applying. In Philadelphia, there are 19 benefits.

Some of the most common many go to the organization for include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and the Pharmaceutical Contract for the Elderly (PACE/NET), among others.

“Food is always at the top of the list. You don’t work, you don’t get paid, you can’t buy food, so SNAP is always at the top,” said Cintron

Amid COVID-19, she also said BDT has been fielding a growing number of calls for rental and cash assistance programs.

While the organization doesn’t specifically provide help when filling out those applications, Cintron said it does connect callers in need with other organizations and institutions that do.

When it comes to outreach, BDT operates all through telephone, collaborates with local community organizations and relies heavily on word of mouth to get the word out.

“We let folks know,” said Cintron. “As a Latinx person reaching out to members of the Latinx community and saying: ‘Hey, call this number.”

That number in Philadelphia is 833-373-5868 and outside of the city in Pennsylvania is 833-373-5869.

Those that call are put in contact with outreach specialists that are trained not only how to apply for certain benefits, but also what each one does.

“We are educators and we help you navigate the process, and we do it in the language that you speak,” said Cintron.

Currently, there are 30 Spanish-language specialists on staff at BDT. Both the language access and educational nature of the work is in an effort to build trust within the most vulnerable communities.

Cintron empathizes with the situation of many, but encourages them to get the benefits that they are eligible for and deserve.

“I think we all feel we have barriers and we can’t get to the stuff, or that we don’t qualify for it because ‘I wasn’t born in this country’ or ‘I don’t speak the language,’ and that’s all legit stuff to feel,” she said. “But I don’t want people to feel discouraged. I want people to understand that we’re safe, that we really just want to educate folks on what’s available.”

Originally published in Al Día News on March 22, 2021.