Libraries Help Connect Patrons with Government Benefits and Services

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by Steve Zalusky

Libraries are on the front lines in serving their communities during challenging economic times. Some of them have even entered into creative partnerships to help out communities that have been hit hard during the recession.

People in these impoverished communities may not even know about some of the services that are available to them. In South Carolina, for example, 62 percent of eligible households received SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

And in 2009, more than $800 million allocated for South Carolina went unclaimed, including $60 million in PELL grants for students and $50 million in Medicare Part D low-income subsidies for seniors.

In order to bridge that information gap, one library system in South Carolina is working with a statewide non-profit organization to offer what amounts to a one-stop shop for people needing to know information about food stamps, financial assistance to families with children, medical benefits, home energy assistance and even federal and state taxes.

Last year, the Florence County Library System teamed with the Benefit Bank of South Carolina (TBB-SC), a non-profit organization fighting poverty by offering an electronic service that directly helps low- and moderate-income individuals and families electronically file for and receive benefits and services.

All it requires is a trained counselor, access to a computer, an Internet connection and a printer.

Thanks to a partnership with the library system, the library became a regional training site for The Benefit Bank counselors, up to 28 are trained at a time in the library’s computer training lab. And five of the first counselors came from the library system itself. Anyone can become a counselor for the Benefit Bank by taking the one day training course and becoming certified.

Counselors then began offering services at the Lake City Branch Library as a pilot project to show that public libraries were a natural fit for this type of service.

The counselor sits side-by-side with the client during an interview in which the client’s information, which is password-protected, is saved for future use.

Clients use The Benefit Bank's software to fill out some basic information. The software actually tells them whether they are eligible for specific benefits, saving time up front.

The counselor then assists the applicant in filling out online forms and filing for various benefits online, thus saving the applicant from having to file for benefits with multiple agencies.

The combination of the counselor and the integrated online software is the key to this process, which averages about one hour per applicant to complete.

For the clients, the economic benefits have added up. An adult with two children and an earned income of $13,250 a year could see an increase of $7,400 from previously unrealized benefits in such areas as child tax credits and food assistance.

Lake City Public Library was the fourth highest-performing TBB site in the state in February in completing applications for its residents. Ellen Tisdale, aided by two library employees, has completed 120 applications in that month alone. Altogether, they have done 201 applications that have aided 86 families containing 139 household members. In those households there were 28 children under 18, 92 adults, and 28 senior citizens. Three members were blind and 10 were disabled.

The estimated annual value of the 34 SNAP benefits for Lake City residents is $88,404. The estimated annual value of the 48 health insurance benefits is $205,218. The amount of the tax refunds (federal and state) of the 60 tax returns is $140,486.

The total amount that could be returned to these residents from all those applications and returns is $434,108. Quick math shows that those 86 families could see an extra $5,047 in their annual income as a result of these Benefit Bank applications. The average AGI (adjusted gross income) of the people who filed these taxes was $14,858. The addition of $5,047 to that amount is significant in assisting with financial stability.

For the clients, the benefits have been manifold. Melissa Cooper, a student, said she was unable to find full-time employment and lived on what she could cobble together as a library assistant, day care teacher and tutor.

“I qualified for the Benefit Bank services, completed my taxes and applied for financial aid,” she said.

“I had been paying a national franchise to prepare my federal and state tax returns , but they charged me more every year and did them the very same way. I started preparing my own returns, but I had a question about my retirement income,” said Charles Cusack. “After completing my taxes with The Benefit Bank I found out that I was paying on income that was not taxable. The Benefit Bank counselor was very nice, cordial and saved me a lot of money. “

One senior couple who had previously driven more than 25 miles and waited four hours to have their taxes filled out decided to come to the library and get their taxes done for free. And they didn’t have to wait.

“Public libraries are at the heart of their communities, as such we must provide the resources our communities need in these challenging economic times," said Ray McBride, director of the Florence County Library System. "The Florence County Library System and The Benefit Bank of South Carolina partnership leverages scarce resources to maximize service to the community. The success of our pilot project has allowed us to expand Benefit Bank services to the other five libraries in our system and to additional public library systems in South Carolina."

The Benefit Bank is not only partnering with libraries in South Carolina. A representative from the Ohio Benefit Bank is available at the Loudonville Public Library in Loudonville, Ohio every month (except during tax season) to assist those with questions about their eligibility for social services and benefits.

The Benefit Bank is also involved in other states, such as Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Which goes to show that libraries provide benefits that reach beyond the shelves.

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