Free benefits up for grabs

The Ohio Benefit Bank's new RV, which will allow the program to set up a mobile benefit bank clinic just about anywhere.

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TESS VIGELAND:We all like to think we're getting everything we can for our tax dollars. But that assumes we know everything that's available to us. And apparently we don't. Americans fail to claim 39 Billion dollars worth of government benefits each year. That's everything from food stamps to funding for home improvements. A program called the Benefit Bank is now helping connect people in six states with those benefits.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler went to Ohio to check it out.


Jeff Tyler: The van parks outside a retirement home in Circleville, a small town in central Ohio. With the flick of a switch, a generator comes on. It powers printers and computers with Internet access in this office on wheels. The van is a mobile extension of the Benefit Bank, a program that matches people with services -- things like health care, food stamps, and home energy assistance.

William Stickle, an unemployed construction worker in his forties, takes a seat in the van across from counselor Erin Sprouse.

Erin Sprouse: When did you start receiving unemployment?

William Stickle: In February.

Stickle has come to the Benefit Bank to see if he's entitled to services that he may not know about. Any assistance would help.

Stickle: We just don't make enough money to feed everybody and take care of the payments on the house.

The Stickles have three sons. His wife works as a hospital administrator. But that income isn't enough to cover the $1,000 mortgage payment and a food bill that can run as much as $200 a week.

Stickle: The six-year old eats about every 15 minutes.

Sprouse: Really?

Stickle: Yeah.

Stickle applied for food stamps right after he was laid off. But he was told that he made too much money to qualify. Benefit Bank counselor Erin Sprouse says many people apply too early.

Interviewer #3: They take your last 30 days of income. So if you were just employed last week, then it looks like you're making more money. But once you're actually unemployed, lose that income, your eligibility changes.

She also helped Stickle fill out applications for assistance with the heating bill and home weatherization. Each year, in Ohio alone, a $1.5 billion in benefits goes unclaimed. Food stamps and children's health insurance are two of the most overlooked benefits. And many families also miss out on tax credits.

A typical low-income family with kids that uses the Benefit Bank often gets about 15-thousand dollars worth of tax credits and untapped services.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt: To date, we have helped low and moderate-income Ohioans secure over $100 million in public benefits and work support programs that help them meet their basic needs and weather the storm.

That's Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks -- which manages and operates the Benefit Bank. She says the system for public benefits is fragmented and confusing.

Fugitt: For the new poor, they are very embarrassed. They don't want to be seen at the local welfare office.

Hamler-Fugitt says people are more comfortable visiting one of the 800 Benefit Bank sites set up around the state in community centers and churches.

Outside the Benefit Bank van, I spoke with 70-year old Bonnie Frazier.

Tyler:: "Why did you come here today?"

Bonnie Frazier: Just to see if there was anything available that I didn't already know about.

Tyler:: Did you learn anything?

Frazier: Yes I did. According to them, I could possibly be eligible for some food stamps, which would help me quite a bit.

She lives on a fixed-income of less than $1,000 a month. Food stamps would give her another $150 a month for groceries. The Benefit Bank helps people with more than identifying financial assistance. At another event in Columbus, Sibley Arnebeck came away with a job referral.

Sibley Arnebeck: I am 64 and just lost my job and I'm looking for at least some part-time work. And they have a resource that I can sign-up with and they could match me -- they say for 20 hours a week employment.

The Benefit Bank seems to be a hit with the people who use it and its funders. Lisa Courtice is with the Columbus Foundation, which helped launch the program and paid for the van.

Lisa Courtice: The Benefit Bank is just been one of the best investments we've made in our 63 year history.

It's an investment that also pays off for the state. Lisa Hamler-Fugitt says most of the benefits are paid for with federal dollars -- but that money is spent in local communities.

Fugitt: Then it starts the economic driver of job creation, where those benefits are redeemed locally. It means people are being hired to work in those grocery stores, people are working in those hospitals or clinics.

Ohio's program has served about 60,000 people. It's considered a model for the country. Five other states are considering setting-up their own Benefit Banks.

In Columbus, Ohio, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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