To help low-income families access more than $2.6 billion in unclaimed work supports (such as tax credits, public benefits, and student financial aid), The Duke Endowment awarded more than $7 million between 2010 and 2015 for outreach and enrollment using The Benefit Bank online service in North Carolina and South Carolina.
For low-income individuals and families who are struggling to feed and care for themselves and improve their economic status, a little help goes a long way. Jobless rates in North Carolina (6.9%) and South Carolina (6.6%) remain high, as the region slowly recovers from economic recession, meaning that the number of unemployed and underemployed remains high, as well.
Many federal work support programs are designed to deliver a helping hand in the form of financial benefits and assistance, including income tax credits, public benefits like food assistance, and student financial aid. All of these programs help recipients transition from crisis to economic security, but navigating a complex web of government systems and multiple agencies to qualify and apply for benefits discourages a large number of potential recipients from applying.
Many low- and middle-income families do not apply for work supports, even though they may be eligible. Many are unaware of the available benefits or may want to avoid the perceived stigma of “welfare.” Even those who wish to apply are often daunted by the prospect of taking time off from work to visit many different offices and fill out complex and confusing forms. As a result, an estimated $1.8 billion of unclaimed work supports in North Carolina and $898 million in South Carolina were left on the table in 2012.
In 2013, health insurance subsidies available through the Affordable Care Act were also introduced as a support for low- and middle-income individuals and families, adding another potential benefit.
To help increase access to work supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, student financial aid, and other programs, The Duke Endowment has supported the use and expansion of outreach and enrollment activities using an online service called The Benefit Bank. The Benefit Bank provides a single, online portal through which clients can determine the benefits for which they may be eligible. In many cases, they can also complete tax returns or applications to receive those benefits.
The Benefit Bank allows users to:
- file federal and state income taxes for free and receive tax refunds within 10 days,
- register to vote (in some states),
- complete federal student aid forms,
- apply for benefits such as food assistance and health insurance,
- access veteran services,
- obtain social security income and disability benefits,
- lower prescription drug costs, and
- qualify for other benefits.
Although The Benefit Bank is available for individual users, one of its strengths is the use of trained counselors who walk users through the exploration and application processes in familiar settings, such as a neighborhood school, library or church. Using a simple online questionnaire, counselors help clients navigate through benefit eligibility information and electronic tax filings, and obtain detailed follow-up instructions for the client. This combination of online technology with real-time community outreach and engagement results in an easy, non-threatening, one-stop-shop experience for clients. In North Carolina and South Carolina, The Benefit Bank interface is also available in Spanish.
The Benefit Bank counselors in the Carolinas are helping residents explore health insurance options in addition to other Benefit Bank supports.Staff also serve as federally trained and certified health care Navigators under the Affordable Care Act. In 2015, The Benefit Bank will help new enrollees in subsidized health insurance file online federal taxes in order to receive federal health care tax credits.
Building on a Positive Track Record
The Benefit Bank online service was developed by Solutions for Progress in Philadelphia in 2005-2006. The national model was developed in 2007 through a collaboration among the National Council of Churches, The Columbus Foundation, the Ohio Association of Food Banks, and the Ohio Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The effort in Ohio, with more than 1,000 sites and over 3,000 counselors, has helped clients claim more than $1 billion in work supports since 2005. A study by Ohio University found that clients of The Benefit Bank experience less food insecurity, fewer emergency food network visits, and fewer hardships related to the supports they received.
In 2009, the South Carolina Office of Rural Health began operating The Benefit Bank in South Carolina, with funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina Foundation. Since 2010, The Duke Endowment has provided an additional $3.28 million to expand the service throughout the state. In 2014, The Benefit Bank-South Carolina became a program of a new nonprofit, SC THRIVE.
In 2011, MDC, a nonprofit in Durham that helps underserved people and communities, assumed responsibility for operating The Benefit Bank in North Carolina. Since then, The Duke Endowment has provided nearly $4 million to expand The Benefit Bank’s reach throughout the state.
- South Carolina Office of Rural Health (2010-2013)
- SC THRIVE (2014)