The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's November 2009 Nourishing Community: Ending Hunger in Philadelphia study revealed some disturbing results: As many as 11,000 local Jewish community members are at risk for hunger. The study also documented that nearly 80 percent of Jewish adults — many of them seniors — who are eligible for food stamps are not taking advantage of this lifesaving public benefit.
In response, last fall, Federation's Center for Social Responsibility convened Jewish Family and Children's Service, the Jewish Relief Agency, the Klein JCC, the Mitzvah Food Project and the Rhawnhurst NORC to identify seniors who were possibly eligible for but not enrolled in public benefits. Federation recruited Benefits Data Trust — a nonprofit organization that helps low-income people access public benefits they are eligible to receive — to mail letters to the thousands of people identified through its BenePhilly program. BenePhilly staff worked one on one with all who responded to the mailing and made follow-up calls to determine their likelihood of being eligible for benefits.
At the end of Federation's six-month campaign, which wrapped up in May — along with an investment of $45,000 — 400 clients applied for approximately 600 benefits that were worth $837,000.
"For a $45,000 investment, a more than $800,000 return on investment in year one is very significant," said Nora Dowd Eisenhower, the National Council on Aging's vice president, Benefits Access Group; director, National Benefits Center; and former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Aging. "The results are outstanding."
"This was an incredibly effective and efficient project," said Brian Gralnick, director of the Center for Social Responsibility. "While the approximate six-month social return on investment was 19 to 1, the vast majority of our seniors will keep these benefits over time, so the 10-year return on investment could be as much as 150 to 1."
"BDT is delighted with the success of the benefits enrollment campaign and its community partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia," said Ginger Zielinskie, executive director of Benefits Data Trust. "The campaign highlighted the importance of community referral networks, and demonstrated a successful model for partnerships between community-based organizations."
Eisenhower said this collaboration was important because older people "are disproportionately under-enrolled in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/food stamps). Seniors are not always aware of how to successfully navigate the public benefits application process, especially when it comes to online applications. It's important to get out in front of the issue and look at how to address it in the most effective way, and I congratulate the Federation for doing that."
BDT educated clients about, and helped them to apply for, SNAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program , Pennsylvania's prescription assistance program, the Low-income Subsidy for Medicaid Part D and the Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program.
Eisenhower noted that "benefits have become so complicated, and there are a lot of moving parts. We're talking about a number of different benefits, which change on an annual basis. It's difficult for organizations like Federation to stay on top of this. It's very smart to farm this out to experts like BDT.
"The campaign enabled Federation to have benefits experts do the work, so that Federation's and their partners' clients could benefit."
"People don't apply for benefits for a variety of reasons," said Gralnick. "They may not know they're eligible, or even if they do know, they don't know how to apply or are embarrassed to ask for help."
BenePhilly addressed these issues by utilizing over-the-phone enrollment and employing a Russian-speaking call center operator, the cost of which was paid for by Federation's grant, for Russian immigrants who make up a significant portion of Philadelphia's low-income Jewish community members.
"We educate clients fully about benefits and assist them with applications and with follow-up in a respectful and compassionate manner, to reduce the stigma that can be attached to public benefits," said Zielinskie. "We can do all this cost-effectively because it's our sole focus. We have the technical infrastructure necessary to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. At the end of the day, we can help the clients of Federation and their partners to cover the costs of food, shelter and prescriptions."
Eisenhower said that the economic downturn's negative effect on Philadelphia, coupled with a large number of people locally who are eligible but not enrolled in public benefit programs, made Philadelphia an ideal place to launch this campaign. "The community has a high number of seniors who want to stay in their own homes," said Eisenhower. "One of the keys to this is ensuring that they're enrolled in all the benefit programs for which they're eligible. Delivering this combination of benefits to the individuals is an influx of income to the local community."
"BDT hopes that BenePhilly will continue to serve as a resource for the clients and staff of Federation's extensive service network," said Zielinskie. "We look forward to continuing the cooperative efforts to help members of the Jewish community access valuable benefit programs. Older Philadelphians can still call BenePhilly at 1-800-236-2194."
"This benefits-enrollment campaign is a great example of how Federation convenes our agencies and tackles a challenging problem in a cost-effective manner," said Gralnick. "This is the type of campaign that only our Federation can manage on behalf of our community."
Federation's Center for Social Responsibility works with its partner organizations to develop and implement innovative programs that help community members in need, especially seniors and low-income individuals and families, and so helps promote self-sufficiency.
For more information, contact Brian Gralnick at 215-832-0850 or [email protected]