April 6-12, 2006
City BeatFound Money
A Philly firm would link the poor with unused aid. If the city wants it to.
: Michael T. Regan
It's called The Benefit Bank and, while it's been successful around the country, Brand's South Broad Street company is vying for a shot at helping its hometown's poorest.
TBB is a tax-preparation program and database that compares clients' responses to yes, no and fill-in-the-blank questions with eligibility guidelines for a slew of programs, including
Medicaid, CHIP, LIHEAP, food stamps and child-care subsidies. Then, the software fills out the proper applications, which can be printed and mailed or filed electronically.
The software, which could help a family of four with an earned income of $15,000 take advantage of an additional $10,000 in aid, was developed by Brand's Solutions for Progress firm. It's unique because users can find out if they qualify for different types of assistance all at once instead of running to different offices and filling out complicated forms. Call it one-stop shopping for the less fortunate.
Although the software is in about 70 agencies across Philadelphia, the city works with thousands of community groups, faith-based organizations and social-service agencies. Brand and several elected officials want the city to hire the for-profit company to expand TBB's reach to that ready-made social network.
Potential mayoral candidate and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah estimates it would cost the city about $500,000 to market "one of [his] favorite programs" citywide. (He helped a nonprofit that contracted with Brand's company get a $500,000 federal grant to make TBB a reality.)
First, Fattah says, hundreds of agencies would link to the database; next, the city would launch an "aggressive, door-to-door" public awareness campaign to tell people they could access the software at their church, community center, job or another place they visit regularly.
"The idea is not for The Benefit Bank to be just in a handful of locations," he says, "but to have this available everywhere you turn."
Last week, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown held a presentation for council members and advocates to learn about TBB. "The notion of navigating government and being intimidated by navigating government is diminished enormously" with this program, she says.
Despite positive accolades from politicos and agencies already using it, the Street administration remains noncommittal. "We're not ready to make any kind of a financial commitment simply because we are still looking at it," says mayoral spokesman Joe Grace.
Brand applauds Street's commitment to poverty issues and says TBB has different applications in every city. "The process here is the most ambitious of any city so far," he says. "We're happy to jump through hoopsbut not forever."
Still, it's likely that Brand will stick it out no matter how frustrating negotiations with the city might get. He's the kind of guy who really hates barriers, whether he's talking about procedural obstacles between the needy and $35 billion in untapped aid nationwide, limitations in software or struggles among people.
Of the hundreds of works of art that inhabit Brand's Avenue of the Arts offices, he chose for above his desk prints that show two clenched fists with the words "Racism Chains Both," an image from the National Black Liberation Committee of the Communist Party USA. Nearby, 100 employees sit in airy cubicles decorated with colorful artifacts such as an orange race car, ceramic skeletons and a Venezuelan tribal headdress.
The New York native with a belly and longish salt-and-pepper hair moved to Philly to study economics and city planning at UPenn, was a civil rights and anti-war demonstrator and worked in health care before starting Solutions for Progress in 1992.
Fattah, who attended a meeting with Street and Brand earlier this year, says TBB "makes a real difference to the individual family, but we are convinced it can make a real difference neighborhood- and community-wide if you take 100,000 people in this city and move them above the poverty line."
The software and training are free; Brand makes money when municipalities and corporations hire his company to advertise the program and tweak the software to fit their specific needs.
The city's Office of Emergency Shelter and Services (OESS) is taking a chance on altruistic capitalism by adding TBB to five sites by month's end. OESS will use the program to help people access aid and evaluate how food stamps work for clients without permanent housing.
"It fits right in with our objectives to transition people out of the cycle of homelessness to add resources they didn't otherwise have," says OESS special project manager Leah Lim.
The only downside Jerry Bennett, director of programs at the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), sees is in staffing. ECA can't afford to pull workers away from other projects to file clients' taxes and benefits forms. "It's frustrating to not be able to access something because of funding," he says.
That's where saturating city agencies with the software comes in; if one agency is too busy, for example, clients could go to another, like the Women's Community Revitalization Project (WCRP) where case manager Irene Dougherty used TBB for a dozen returns this year. She could handle five times the load.
WCRP, a community development corporation that builds affordable rentals for women and their families and provides support services, distributed flyers about the service, but a citywide campaign would really get the word out.
On average, Dougherty's clients have gotten $2,000 in tax refunds to pay bills or put toward home down payments. And she's saved them the $200 it would have cost to hire a private tax filer. For some tenants, she says, that's a month's rent.
The more social service agencies that help the poor, the better Brand says he feels about his work.
"We think poverty is an obscenity all over the world," he says, "but especially in the United States."