Helping Unemployed Workers Access Benefits: A Q&A between Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Rachel Meeks Cahill

Since federal benefits for long-term jobless workers expired on December 28, nearly 1.7 million workers have lost unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.  This afternoon, the Senate again failed to overcome a filibuster preventing action on a bill to extend federal UI.  Many long-term unemployed workers and their families are facing significant hardships as a result, including having difficulty paying for food or rent.  To understand what this means on the ground – and to learn about one strategy for helping such workers – I spoke with Rachel Meeks Cahill, Director of Policy at Benefits Data Trust (BDT), a national non-profit organization committed to transforming how individuals in need access public benefits.   Since 2010, BDT has worked in partnership with Pennsylvania’s Departments of Public Welfare and Labor & Industry to conduct targeted outreach to individuals who have exhausted or been denied UI benefits.

1)       So, what is it that you do?

BDT has long-standing partnerships with Pennsylvania state agencies to use a data-driven approach to identify and provide application assistance to vulnerable Pennsylvanians who are eligible, but not enrolled in various benefit programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Medicaid, Medicare Savings Program (MSP), and more. Since 2005, BDT has submitted nearly 355,000 benefit applications on behalf of people in need, resulting in approximately $1 billion in benefits delivered to low-income seniors and families.

In late 2010, BDT launched its Unemployment Compensation (UC) project in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) and Department of Labor and Industry (L&I).  Through data-sharing agreements with each agency, BDT identifies individuals across the state who recently exhausted or were denied unemployment benefits and are not currently enrolled in SNAP. BDT reaches out to eligible individuals via direct mail and phone calls to educate them about SNAP benefits and help them apply. Many have never accessed public benefits before and find the application processes difficult and time-consuming. BDT’s highly trained staff provides in-depth application support and comprehensive follow up to ensure applications are as complete as possible when submitted to the SNAP agency.

BDT receives regular updates to the UC file as new individuals exhaust their benefits.  This allows BDT to respond quickly to shifts in the labor market and policy changes in Washington.

2)      What impact does this outreach have?

The UC project’s data-driven outreach model is designed to operate at scale.  In its first three years in operation, the project has contacted 253,000 households and screened 48,000 for potential eligibility, resulting in the submission of over 17,000 SNAP applications.  Almost half of all applicants appear to qualify for expedited SNAP benefits, indicating they have virtually no income or resources remaining by the time they apply.  Those approved receive an average benefit of $193 per month.

One participant, Ms. A, age 58, explained what the outreach meant to her –

“In the past three weeks, I’ve gone through three failed job interviews and I felt like a failure.  None of us understand how we got into this predicament.  Thank goodness you’re doing this…This benefit amount is equivalent to my monthly mortgage payment…I’m so glad you didn’t let me drop through the cracks.”

Of course, as in other SNAP enrollment initiatives, not all applications get approved. Most denials are related to missing documentation or difficulty scheduling the required interview, so BDT works with DPW to resolve individual cases and streamline application processes wherever possible.  The best example of this is the BenePhilly Demonstration Project.

3)      It is obvious why this is something that helps the individuals/families, but why is this good for the state?

When the UC project was first established, the state was seeking a targeted strategy to help the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians whose jobs were lost in the recession.  Outreach is paid for with private dollars and federal matching funds and SNAP benefits are 100% federally funded – so there is virtually no cost to the state.

In addition, the economic benefits to the state are undeniable. The UC project draws roughly $2 million in SNAP benefits per month into the state, generating at least $43 million in economic activity each year.

To learn more, see “Connecting Unemployment Exhaustees to Critical Benefits: An Innovative Outreach and Enrollment Model,” published in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal in October 2012 or contact Rachel directly at

CLASP urges Congress to act promptly to extend federal UI benefits. But states and counties should also consider what actions they can take to ensure that those facing joblessness without UI benefits are aware of and connected to other public supports for which they may be eligible.