Fighting Poverty with H.O.P.E. – Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment Accounts Streamline Economic Opportunity

Pilot H.O.P.E. accounts would combine improved technology, streamlined case management, and coordinated access to multiple federal, state, city, and nonprofit benefits programs that already exist. The accounts would enable families to use any smart device or computer to learn about the public and philanthropic programs for which they are eligible - including aid to improve health, nutrition, job training and placement, housing, income, etc. - and then apply for all of these programs at once from the convenience of their device, drastically reducing the opportunity costs of low-income Americans seeking social services. Such accounts would also be able to include any private savings that people are able to accrue. States could also authorize pilot projects to allow families to partner more in depth with government and nonprofit organizations by voluntarily agreeing to long-term H.O.P.E. action plans to provide more aid and then specify how all parties will work together to help th...

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Frequently Asked Questions
Who does this help?
If implemented widely by states, this proposal could aid tens of millions of low-income Americans, dramatically reducing the amount of time they need to use to obtain and keep benefits, while also bolstering long-term economic opportunity. Such accounts could slash the number of government employees required to shuffle paperwork in massive social service offices, thereby freeing up such employees for much higher priority work such as aiding shut-in seniors, staffing job training centers, or boosting pre-K classes.
How is this so low-cost to the state?
Many of the benefits targeted are paid for wholly or in part by the federal government; increasing their usage will not only reduce poverty and the symptoms of poverty but will bolster local economic activity. Moreover, the automation suggested in this proposal will save states scarce administrative funds.
  • State, city, and county social service agencies
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Technology companies
  • Credit unions and banks
  • People opposed to easing access to the safety net
Model Policy
This act shall be known as the H.O.P.E. Accounts and Action Plans Pilot Programs Act of STATE
To authorize the state and/or counties within the state to create pilot programs to test H.O.P.E. (Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment) accounts and action plans, to use technology to coordinate access to multiple government anti-poverty and work support programs and nonprofit aid, and allow families to voluntarily work in conjunction with government and non-profit agencies to boost their long-term economic advancement.

(1) Findings
(a) In 2015-2017, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), an average of ____ state residents, lived in food insecure households. According to Hunger Free America’s analysis of federal data, ____ percent of the state’s children and ___percent of the state’s older residents (age 60 or above) suffered from food insecurity during that time period.

(b) Approximately ____ adults in the state lived in food insecure households with at least one person employed in the years 2015 to 2017, according to federal data analyzed by Hunger Free America.

(c) According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017, ______ residents of ____ {state name} – including ___ children – lived below the federal poverty line, which equaled $20,420 in annual income for a family of three. One in ____ state residents – and one in ___ of the state’s children – lived in poverty. The majority of state residents living in poverty were working people, children, older Americans, and people with disabilities. Fully _____ million state residents lived below 150% of the poverty line – in poverty or at the edge of it – equaling $30,360 or below in annual income.

(c) Many low-income state residents work two or even three jobs. If they are unemployed, they spend a great deal of time looking for work. They often travel by public transportation, laboriously making one, two, or three connections to shuttle between home, work, social service agencies, houses of worship, and grocery stores. If they work as a nanny for someone else’s children, because they themselves can’t afford to pay for childcare or babysitters, they also must take the extra time to care for their own kids. If they work as home health aides to assist someone else’s parents, because they cannot afford home health care themselves, they also must take the time to care for their own parents.

(d) While government safety net programs help numerous state residents avoid starvation, homelessness, and other outcomes even more dreadful than everyday poverty – which are also significant accomplishments – it is also the case that government anti-poverty aid is generally a significant challenge to obtain and keep. Federal, state, and county procedures have often made it extremely difficult to advertise these programs and enable families to access them. That’s why many low-income people in the state are actually unaware of all the government benefits for which they are eligible, reducing the amount of help going to state residents by at least $_____ every year. Even if low-income people do know about available aid, the journey to receive it is usually long, onerous, and time-consuming. They need to go to one government office to apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps), a different government office to apply for housing assistance, a separate WIC (Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program) clinic to obtain WIC benefits, and a variety of other government offices to apply for other types of aid – sometimes traveling long distances by public transportation or on foot to get there, and then, once they’ve walked through the door, they are often forced to wait for hours at each office to be served. Even when people initially apply for some benefits online, they often have to physically go to one or more government offices to follow-up. They need to bring piles of paperwork to each office, usually with slightly different combinations of documents every time. Making copies of the paperwork also takes time and money. The lines in these offices can seem endless, and sometimes clients need to wait outside, for hours, in the worst kinds of weather. If the office is especially backed up that day, or if the government case workers lost the previously-submitted paperwork, yet another visit on another day will be required, taking the same excruciating travel and waiting times. Many offices don’t have weekend or night hours, so if an applicant works, she or he will likely lose wages by applying for government help, since most low-income workers, unlike white-collar workers, often get no paid leave. Clients can try calling on the phone, but it’s rare for a human being to actually answer, and the voice mailboxes are often full.

(e) When a government intake worker or case worker finally sees an applicant at an office, they will usually ask many of the same intrusive, detailed, lengthy questions about finances and personal situations as similar government workers did at the last three offices. In most places, families must even fill out additional forms, which their children must bring to school, to qualify their kids for free or reduced-price school meals.

(f) Due largely to such barriers, many vital government programs are highly underutilized. In 2015, according to USDA ___ percent of all people eligible for SNAP in _____ {state}, and ___ percent of the “working poor” eligible for SNAP in the state, failed to receive it. According to the IRS, one in five low-income Americans eligible to receive Earned Income Tax Credits fail to receive them.

(g) Given that the state has thousands of nonprofit groups providing social services, it is nearly impossible for struggling people to determine which of those organizations provides the services they need, whether the organization is conveniently located, and for which services they are eligible. If they do figure out that a nonprofit (or multiple nonprofits) could help, they will need to take the time to visit each one, where sometimes lines around the block ensure yet another seemingly endless wait, only to fill out even more paperwork, and go through yet more interviews. Since many government and nonprofit programs require frequent re-applications and re-certifications, a low-income person often has to go through these onerous steps every few months.

(h) According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, seven percent of US households contained not one person with a checking or savings account in 2016. If low-income people don’t have a checking account or credit cards (and most don’t), they can’t pay bills by mail or online. Instead, they have to pay for everything in cash, spending money on extremely high fees at check cashing facilities that prey on residents of poor neighborhoods. And even then they aren’t done, because paying bills in cash often requires a visit to the phone company, the electric company, the landlord, and the gas company, where more long lines await the person who must pay their bills in person.

(i) Technology has fundamentally revamped the lives of most state residents, usually for the better. Now it’s time to use digital technology – combined with policy improvements – to simplify the lives and boost the long-term self-sufficiency of our lowest-income residents. One powerful way to do this is for our federal, state, and local governments to create online H.O.P.E. (Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment) accounts and action plans.

(a) Definitions
-1) THE SECRETARIES (or COMMISSIONERS) – The term “the Secretaries” or “Commissioners” shall refer to the Secretaries {List heads of relevant state agencies} ___________________________________

-2) ELIGIBLE PILOT COMMUNITY – The term “Eligible pilot entity” shall refer to chief executive or government agencies of any state, county, and city. The community may be defined as the entire area governed by each state, county or city, or a smaller sub-set, such as one or more counties and/or cities within a state, one or more communities within a county, or one or more neighborhoods within a city.

-3) TARGET POPULATION.—The term “target population” includes an individual who (or family that)—
–(A) earns an income below 200 percent of the Federal poverty line;
–(B) suffers from food insecurity;
–(C) earns insufficient income to ensure food security and/or economic security for such individual or family;
–(D) lives in a rural, suburban, or urban community that suffers from poverty, hunger, or food insecurity;
–(E) is homeless;
–(F) receives (or recently received) assistance under a State program funded under part A of title IV of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. et seq.), relating to temporary assistance to needy families; or
–(G) is eligible for benefits under any federal nutrition assistance or federal anti-poverty program.
-4) PARTNER NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION – The term “partner nonprofit organization” shall refer to any national, regional, state, or local nonprofit group described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and exempt from tax under section 501(a) of such Code.

(b) H.O.P.E. Accounts Pilot Projects. The Secretaries/Commissioners would jointly manage a yearly competition – during the length of authorized time – for eligible pilot communities to help target populations through H.O.P.E. (Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment) account pilot projects. Eligible pilot communities would form public/private partnerships with banks, credit unions, and technology companies – to create H.O.P.E. accounts and action plans that combine improved technology, streamlined case management, and coordinated access to multiple to federal, state, city, and nonprofit programs that already exist.
Once the accounts and plans are in place, workers could voluntarily choose to also have their paychecks deposited directly into the accounts, which would be held by private banks and credit unions that voluntarily choose to participate in the program. Families could also use the accounts to increase their savings, which would be matched by government and private sources, including individual development accounts. People could use the account app to easily locate and sign-up for job training and placement services online.
Once set up, H.O.P.E. accounts would enable families to use any smart phone, tablet, or computer to learn about the public and philanthropic programs for which they are eligible – including aid to improve health, nutrition, job training and placement, housing, income, etc. – and then apply for all of these programs at once from the convenience of their device. If supporting documents need to be submitted with the application, then families could take pictures of those documents and submit the pictures with the application. A surprising number of low-income people already have smart phones and/or home computers, not because they are luxuries, but because they are essential tools of learning and work in modern America. But families that don’t own a smart phone, tablet, or computer could be provided a basic one, along with a subsidized Wi-Fi/Internet access plan, and people uncomfortable with technology could go to a library, government office, or nonprofit agency to be walked through the system. For elderly and disabled shut-ins who can’t access the technology, government or nonprofit employees and/or AmeriCorps national service participants could make home visits to help.
To make it easier to access health care, H.O.P.E. accounts would also clearly specify medical benefits, and any out-of-pocket costs, for each of the health plans for which the users are eligible, and empower them to easily select the plan that works best for them.
The accounts would also enable working families to file for federal EITC refunds, and, in states and localities with their own supplemental EITC payments, to simultaneously file for those as well. Since the accounts will already have all the financial information needed to file for those payments, families could easily do so with this app, saving the time and money they would otherwise have to spend on third-party tax filing services.
Any cash in the account set aside for education, job training, starting a business, or buying a home would be non-taxable.
The accounts would allow low-income families to easily access and monitor – in one central online account – the status, amounts, and recertification deadlines for all their benefits and savings. They could also use the accounts to pay all bills online, saving outrageous check cashing fees, and enormous amounts of time.
The accounts could also be given the option of including a budgeting function to give families real-time cash flow data and long-term financial planning data, including helping them to calculate how much they would lose in interest on credit cards versus how much they would gain in interest by saving more. The accounts would offer a calendar and scheduling function, enabling families to keep track of all job search, work, family, and school obligations, as well as any social service filing or appointment dates. Careful security and privacy protections would need to be put in place, so that only the family, and not the government, nonprofit, or banking partners, would be able to see the or track private financial and appointment information.
These pilot projects are authorized through Fiscal Year _____.

(c) H.O.P.E. Action Plans Pilot Projects. The Secretaries/Commissioners would jointly manage a yearly competition – during the length of authorized time – for eligible pilot communities to help target populations through H.O.P.E. Action Plan pilot projects.
In such pilots, low-income individuals or families would be given the option of partnering in more depth with government and nonprofit organizations by voluntarily agreeing to long-term H.O.P.E. action plans that will specify exactly how all parties will work together to help the families earn, learn, and save better in order to ensure greater economic opportunity for themselves and their children. The goal for action plan would be to ensure that all the programs and people involved are working together in a long-term, positive relationship for the purpose of ensuing upward mobility.
Signing up for a plan would be entirely voluntary for anyone from target populations participating. No penalty or additional requirement, actual or implied, could be levied against any person or household who chooses not to participate in a plan.
H.O.P.E. action plans would be voluntary and could empower families who agree to them to better organize their time and focus their activities on productive endeavors while providing them extra resources to do so. Some plans could be short-term, over just a year or two, aimed at helping families achieve very basic goals, such as avoiding homelessness and hunger. But they could be long-term as well, with far more ambitious goals for upward mobility.
For example, a single mother of two young children could voluntarily enter into a 10-year plan jointly with her city government’s social service agency and with a local nonprofit organization. The plan would include yearly benchmarks of how the mother would use increased resources provided by the plan to boost her jobs skills, increase her earnings, improve the housing situation for her family, obtain more nutritious food, and begin to put money aside to help her children pay for college. Once the specific goals are set, the specific actions each entity would be required to take in order for the mother to meet her goals – as well as the money and other resources that will need to be allocated for these actions from the family, the government, and the nonprofit partners – would all be spelled out in the plan.
These pilot projects are authorized through Fiscal Year _____.

(d) MAINTENANCE OF EFFORT AND NON-DISPLACEMENT OF WORKERS. None of the pilot projects authorized by TITLE II or TITLE III shall:
-1) Decrease the overall monetary value of assistance given to any individual or household, although all entities involved could independently, or jointly, increase funding.
-2) Decrease the overall funding for anti-poverty programs spent by participating pilot communities and agencies, although all entities involved could independently, or jointly, increase funding.
-3) Lengthen the amount of time nor increase the requirements necessary to receive any government benefits, nor in anyway make it more difficult to receive any form of government assistance.
-4) Limit many the legal rights of anyone in the target population have to receive and maintain benefits or other assistance from government or nonprofit communities.
-5) Decrease overall public sector employment in any eligible pilot community, although employees could be transferred – at similar or higher salaries and pay grades – from overseeing paperwork to providing direct services to the public.
-6) Decrease nor increase work requirements for existing government programs.
-7) Lesson program integrity or increase the possibility of fraud in any government program.

(e) Annual Reports to the Legislature. Not later than ____ of each of calendar years ___ through ___ the Secretaries/Commissioners shall submit to the Legislature a report on the progress of the two pilot programs authorized.

(f) Authorization of appropriations and Technical Assistance
Authorization of appropriations. There is authorized to be appropriated $_____ to the {List relevant offices/agencies} ___________________ The Secretaries/Commissioners {List relevant state agencies} ______________________________________________

(g) Effective date. Except as otherwise provided in this Act, this Act and the amendments made by this Act shall take effect on _______.