When a local woman needing some job-search assistance mentioned to Jerry Schneider that she had not filed her taxes for several years, he knew exactly the right tool to help her: The Benefit Bank.
"This client told me she had filed her taxes in 2002, but not in 2000, 2001 or 2003," said Schneider, a job developer for the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service. "By using The Benefit Bank, we cleared up all back taxes and were able to secure refunds totaling nearly $11,000. She was so excited to know that she could apply that money toward the purchase of a home."
JEVS is one of several organizations affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia that are using The Benefit Bank, an Internet-based program that helps people with low and moderate incomes file for tax credits and public benefits.
Billions of dollars in public funds go untouched each year because potentially eligible applicants don't know the programs exist or don't know how to apply. The Benefit Bank was created by Philadelphia-based Solutions for Progress to connect people to these resources and help them strengthen their economic circumstances.
"Many families are struggling because they're not receiving the benefits they should," says Solutions for Progress CEO Robert J. Brand. "The Benefit Bank provides an easy, efficient way to get benefits to those who need them most."
Launched in January, the bank has already become a powerful tool to help community-based, faith-based, governmental and social-service organizations fight poverty. JEVS began using the program in its 2004 pilot phase.
Today, employees and volunteers at 60 Pennsylvania sites - including Federation-affiliated organizations such as the Jewish Community Centers' Stiffel Senior Center and its Klein Branch, as well as Advocates for the Jewish Mentally Ill - have received training and are beginning to use the system.
"A crucial role for counselors using The Benefit Bank is to educate clients," said Morton Levine, The Benefit Bank coordinator for Federation's Center for Social Responsibility, which aims as part of its mission to help the chronically poor achieve self-sufficiency. "There are many people who are eligible for benefits and who do not apply for them because they feel they do not deserve them or are embarrassed to apply for them."
The Benefit Bank is the only system available that can process federal and state tax returns along with such benefits as health insurance plans for children and parents, child-care subsidies, food stamps, voter registration and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Clients provide their information just once, and then the computer can determine their benefit eligibility and generate applications with much of the information already completed.
And since the service is free for clients, every penny ends up in their hands, placing people closer to financial stability.
Benefit Bank systems are customized for each state. Now in use in Pennsylvania and Florida, the program will be available this Janary in Ohio and Washington, D.C.; and in Maryland, Mississippi, Kansas and Texas before 2007.
The program receives support from foundations and other funders through the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the National Council of Churches USA and the Tuttleman Family Foundation.
To learn more, call Morton Levine at 215-832-0684.