In a rare bit of good news for the poor, a Philadelphia nonprofit increased participation by city seniors in the food-stamp program by using marketing techniques better known to the private sector than the anti-poverty world.
Food-stamp usage among people ages 60 and older grew by 23 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to a new report prepared for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food-stamp program, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
The report, by the nonprofit policy-analysis outfit Mathematica Policy Research, is scheduled to be released next week.
During the two-year period, more than 7,000 Philadelphia seniors accrued $16.5 million in benefits for which they had been eligible but had not sought, the report found.
Many low-income seniors traditionally eschew SNAP benefits because they believe there is a stigma attached to asking for help, experts say.
According to the report, the rise in SNAP benefits was engineered by Benefits Data Trust, a national nonprofit headquartered in Center City that is committed to accessing public benefits for people in need.
"The point is not to simply increase SNAP rolls, but to help our low-income senior neighbors be able to afford food and prescriptions," said Ginger Zielinskie, executive director of Benefits Data Trust.
Through a program known as the BenePhilly Demonstration Project, Benefits Data Trust partnered with both the state and the city, as well as various nonprofits, to simplify and streamline the process seniors used to get SNAP benefits between 2010 and 2012. The approximately $650,000 project was funded by the USDA.
Benefits Data Trust used a strategy known as data matching to get SNAP benefits to eligible seniors, Zielinskie said.
If a senior was already enrolled in an assistance program, such as Medicaid or the state prescription-assistance program, Benefits Data Trust would mail that person a letter describing SNAP benefits, Zielinskie said. It's a program similar to one used by credit card companies to market to potential customers, experts said.
The program also allowed seniors to waive certain SNAP processing rules, permitting them to apply from home, for example, rather than at county welfare offices. The state Department of Public Welfare determines SNAP eligibility.
"The big take-away from the project is that when efforts are made to reduce all red tape from enrolling in SNAP, people do sign up for the program," said Julie Zaebst, program manager with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. The coalition partnered with Benefits Data Trust.
Though BenePhilly still exists, the BenePhilly Demonstration has ended.
This means that while BenePhilly continues to help seniors access SNAP benefits, the waivers and exceptions that were part of the demonstration are no longer available, Zaebst said.