Sunday, June 8, 2008

Matching beneficiaries with benefits

Some time back, I had written a Mint op-ed about how the NGO world could benefit from the services of institutions like credit rating agencies, which can help funnel the massive amounts of philanthropic contributions, especially from the smaller contributors, to the most deserving causes. As a corollary to this, it is another major challenge to match deserving beneficiaries to the available philanthropic assistance.

Now Georgia Levenson Keohane, draws attention through a Slate column, about the role of SingleStop USA, a poverty fighting startup, which seeks to "connect the working poor in New York with government funds and services intended for them". After connecting beneficiaries to specific eligible assitance, SingleStop also helps them through the entire application process, helps them obtain the benefits and even give guidance on how to optimally use the assitance.

It has been estimated that nationally more than $65 bn in social welfare assistance goes unclaimed for, that 25 percent of the working poor receive no benefits at all, despite their eligibility, and that only 7 percent of these families access all four of the major supports (tax credits, Medicaid, food stamps, and child care subsidies). It gets support from philanthropists and some well known foundations.

Keohane describes SingleStop's operating model thus, "With a Turbo Tax-like software and legal and financial counseling, it helps people tap into public benefits (tax credits, food stamps, child care subsidies, and health insurance) that they're eligible for but aren't using." After matching them with the eligible assistance, SingleStop also after clients determine what they're eligible for, counselors walk them through the application process, help obtain the benefits, and then provide specific guidance about them.

Keohane goes on, "In 15 minutes, the organization's software tools calculate a family's eligibility for a host of benefits—public assistance (TANF and other welfare-to-work initiatives), food stamps, Medicaid, housing and child care subsidies, health care, school lunch programs, heating assistance, Social Security disability, and tax credits. SingleStop counselors then provide families with tailored legal and financial advice—how to stave off eviction with new rent money or vouchers, how to consolidate debt and begin to pay it off, how to open a savings or IDA account."

Since 2001, a New York City pilot version of the program has connected 70,000 low-income residents to hundreds of millions of government dollars. According to a McKinsey & Co. study of the New York pilot, the average family in a SingleStop program recouped $1,800 in tax credits and $5,000 in benefits that they weren't previously receiving.

It is no different in India where the large numbers of State and Central Government welfare programs - especially in health care, education, skill development, and rural credit - are inaccessible to the most deserving, both due to lack of awareness and also the complexity involved in the application procedure. The SingleStop model is an excellent example of how the huge challenge of rectifying the gaps and inefficiencies in the welfare assitance delivery channels can be addressed. It can be emulated to match beneficiaries with both Government welfare and philanthropic assistance.

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