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The Social Safety Net Gets an Upgrade from Benefits Data Trust

Durva Trivedi — Former Senior Associate, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation
The welcome sign inside the Benefits Data Trust Office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Data science has transformed the ways we make, invest and spend our money, consume information, and conduct our lives in the modern economy. But now it’s time for data science to improve the ways we take care of one another, starting with our social safety net. We’re excited to be supporting the Benefit Data Trust in doing exactly that.

Evidence shows that the social safety net provides a high return on investment bolstering our future shared prosperity. When a struggling family accesses government assistance, their health improves and healthcare costs drop. Cash benefits like the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax credit boost employment for adults and raise the incomes of their children even decades later.

Despite this, some 40 million Americans live in poverty today and 13 million of them are completely disconnected from the safety net. Millions more may be getting one benefit but desperately in need of others that they are often eligible for but not receiving.

They are often unaware of the help they qualify to receive. Applying for benefits is usually an obstacle-ridden and slow process that can reinforce the pernicious stigma associated with asking for help. Most Americans are focused on putting food on their dinner tables and paying their bills, two urgent demands which leave little time for waiting in line and filling out forms.

Benefits Data Trust (BDT) fights these barriers by using technology to make it easy for anyone to quickly find out what benefits they are eligible for and apply for them. They work with partners in state and local government, community-based nonprofits, and the healthcare industry to identify clients who might be eligible for additional support. BDT then conducts outreach and offers support online, in person, or via phone or text, all with the same standard of friendly, respectful service.

Benefits Data Trust [uses] technology to make it easy for anyone to quickly find out what benefits they are eligible for and apply for them.

Yet for every person BDT serves, many more are in need. This is where investments in technology and research come in. BDT seeks to empower partners to easily deploy the software that drives their screening process, and to expand to new cities and states. They want to use advanced machine learning to reach more people, to automate parts of the benefits screening process, and to deliver benefits and services to even more people while preserving BDT’s individual-focused approach.

To help BDT double the number of states in which they work and secure an additional $2.5 billion in benefits for 5 million people across 12 states over the next 5 years, The Rockefeller Foundation’s Data and Technology team is excited to announce a $5 million grant to Benefits Data Trust. This funding comes along with a $2.5 million commitment from Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth, our partner in the Data Science for Social Impact.

“Absolutely no one should have to go to sleep hungry, especially seniors and children.”

– Maria, BDT Benefits Outreach Specialist

The databases and algorithms BDT is building may seem impersonal and anonymous, but they are built on the foundation of thousands of human stories. If you visit BDT’s offices, you’ll see engineers, data scientists, and customer support staff all hard at work in an environment that feels more like a tech startup than a social service agency. Among BDT’s Benefits Outreach Specialists is Maria. In 2011, Maria had three children, a pack of hot dogs in her freezer, and an empty bank account despite having worked since she was 14 years old. With no idea how she was going to feed her children, she tried applying for food stamps (SNAP) and found the experience to be incredibly demoralizing.

Today, Maria’s children are in college and she is improving the experience for others through her work at BDT. “I want to be able to provide the assistance for these families that I did not receive,” Maria said. “Absolutely no one should have to go to sleep hungry, especially seniors and children.”

Learn more about BDT’s data-driven, whole-person approach to service delivery.
Click here to learn more about the DSSI collaborative.

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