Low-Income Seniors Often Need Help Accessing Public Benefits

What Philadelphia-based Benefits Data Trust is doing to make a difference

Approximately 580,000 seniors age 65 and older reside in the five-county Philadelphia region, with about one-third living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level of $23,540 in annual income for a single-person household. These older adults face economic hardship, malnutrition, and social isolation, as well as health and mobility challenges that compromise their independence.

For 25 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported agencies that work to preserve the dignity and quality of life of the low-income, frail elderly in the Philadelphia region so that they can reside in their communities and homes for as long as possible. Here, we talk to Ginger Zielinskie, president of Benefits Data Trust, to learn more about the challenges facing this vulnerable population in our area, and what the organization is doing to make a difference.

Ginger Zielinskie

Ginger Zielinskie, president of Benefits Data Trust

© Benefits Data Trust

Q: Why is it important to help low-income seniors access benefits?

A: Low-income seniors face numerous health and economic challenges. It is estimated that these individuals are eligible for as much as $8,000 in annual benefits from various publicly funded programs in Pennsylvania, for items such as food, heat, safe shelter, and medical care. Yet a significant number do not use these crucial resources. By connecting eligible seniors to the benefits that help meet their basic needs, we can improve their health and financial stability, and lengthen the time they’re able to remain safely in their own homes.

BDT, in conjunction with noted academicians, is in the process of publishing research that links benefits access to improved health outcomes and reduced health care costs for low-income seniors. This research demonstrates that when seniors can access food and heat, they are less likely to enter long-term care facilities, visit the emergency room, or get admitted to the hospital. This doesn’t just help the seniors we serve; it strengthens neighborhoods and saves taxpayer dollars, which benefits all of us.

Q: Why are thousands of low-income seniors in the Philadelphia region not receiving key supports even though they qualify for assistance?

A: We’ve identified five key barriers that prevent seniors from accessing the benefits available to them:

  • A lack of knowledge about eligibility or how to seek assistance.
  • A cumbersome application process.
  • Inability to get to a benefits center to complete an application.
  • A fear of the stigma associated with receiving government assistance.
  • And an inability to apply online.

Q: How is Benefits Data Trust addressing the barriers you noted above?

A: We do this in two ways. First, by examining government lists of current public benefit enrollees, we’re able to identify low-income seniors who are likely to be eligible for benefits. We then make the application process as easy as possible by talking with them over the phone—so they don’t need to leave their homes—and by using special software that allows applications for multiple benefits to be completed simultaneously. We also educate seniors about the fact that benefits are critical to their well-being and that there should be no stigma attached to receiving them. Second, we work with government agencies to further reduce the complexities of applying for benefits, in order to make the application processes easier for seniors to navigate on their own. In 2016, we submitted more than 10,000 applications for senior households in the five-county Philadelphia region, connecting them with over $7.8 million in benefits they were qualified for but were not receiving. 

Q: How do you determine whether your programs have been successful?

A: After the benefits are delivered, we measure their long-term impact on the recipients’ ability to achieve greater stability. Research shows that helping seniors to access public benefits improves their health and financial stability. Also, by assisting so many low-income individuals and families, we are able to address the community-wide impacts of poverty because the benefits they receive pass through the local economy.   

We also assess whether we have been able to make government more efficient and smarter about how it uses data. For instance, a Mathematica Policy Research evaluation showed that our service model of using data to target our outreach and provide phone-based support saved Pennsylvania caseworkers 30 minutes per Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit application, freeing up some of their limited time and resources.

Q: Going forward, what is the biggest challenge facing the Philadelphia region in serving the basic needs of its low-income seniors?

A: We need to find a way to holistically and seamlessly serve our aging population. The data can tell us what services are available and who is eligible. But it will be important for technology and funding to continue to support this work, so that we can maintain our data-driven approach to increase access, track and measure progress, and secure the resources needed to connect all eligible seniors with the critical benefits they deserve.

Benefits Data Trust (BDT) is a not-for-profit social change organization committed to transforming how individuals in need access public benefits and services. It partners with federal, state, and local government agencies and corporations as well as national and community-based organizations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, Colorado, and New York to help vulnerable individuals and families secure financial and other benefit programs that will enable them to achieve greater financial stability and improved health outcomes. Since its inception in 2005, the BDT has submitted over 600,000 benefit applications on behalf of people in need, resulting in approximately $12 billion in delivered benefits. On average, the BDT has been able to increase clients’ annual household incomes by 12 percent. 

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