A big thank you to our CT Money School volunteers!

On November 17 CAHS was proud to host a very special meeting in our new offices: an event to recognize the contributions of our great CT Money School Volunteers.

CAHS launched the CT Money School in 2009, and since the start the program has relied on the contributions and expertise of hundreds of volunteers willing to share their time, experience and knowledge to help others become self-sufficient. You can learn more about the CT Money school here, or even sign up here if you want to volunteer. For everyone else, here are some photos of the event – you can see the full gallery at CT Money School Facebook page

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Today is EITC awareness day!

Every year, millions of eligible workers miss out on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). money1That’s why the IRS started EITC Awareness Day, a day dedicated to encouraging organizations to bring attention to the EITC and free tax filing assistance. This year, EITC Awareness Day will take place on Friday, January 30.

The EITC is a refundable federal tax benefit for lower- and moderate-come workers that can be worth up to $5,143. To find out how much money a worker might receive, check out this quick EITC estimator.

To claim the credit, one must file a tax return. Free tax filing assistance is available through the IRS sponsored programs VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) and TCE (Tax Counseling for the Elderly). Click here to find a site in your area.

No sites nearby? There’s another option! MyFreeTaxes allows taxpayers with household income less than $60,000 to file federal and state tax returns online for free. Visit www.myfreetaxes.com to learn more.

CAHS´workshop: Behavioral Economics and asset building

On January 29th join the Connecticut Asset Building Collaborative in New Haven for the second event in our peer learning series:

Behavioral Economics:  Practical Strategies for Financial Successmoney1

Join us on  Thursday January 29rd, from 9 am to 12.00 pm,  at the United Way of Greater New Haven for an open discussion on best practices on program work.

We will hear from Julia Brown, from Innovations for Poverty Action and Yale´s Household Finance Initiative on how behavioral economics can inform and improve asset building programs, and learn how front line staff can apply these lessons to become more effective. We will cover:

  • What is Behavioral Economics, and how hidden incentives can help or hamper our work.
  • How to take into account loss aversion, selection bias and information overload to make our programs more effective.
  • How to pursue successful outreach strategies to  attract clients each year, responding to their perceived needs and providing the right incentives.
  • How to track and monitor data and outcomes in asset building, and use the data to inform our strategies and improve outcomes.
  • How to use VITA and other gateway services as a launchpad for financial education and asset building programs, building a successful referral network.

We will discuss these issues, and many more, in an open , freewheeling discussion with economists and program managers, all expert on this field. They will give an open, comprehensive look at best practices, good ideas and the (occasional) missteps running an asset building program.

Seating is limited, and filling up rapidly – please RSVP here  as soon as possible if you want to attend.

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Best practices in asset building – a peer learning session

The Connecticut Asset Building Collaborative hosted our first session of our Peer Learning Network. The tittle of the session was “Lessons Learned: VITA and Financial Education Best Practices

Peer Learning VITAOur presenters, Lucille Sclafani (CAHS´ VITA Coordinator, center), Laura O´Keefe ( Family Financial Stability Coordinator, Village for Children and Families, right) and Andrew Geisert (Economic Empowerment Program Director at FSW, left) each focused on different areas. Lucille focused on effective strategies to promote asset building on VITA sites, with a focus on targeted programs and effective communications strategies. Laura covered how to manage volunteers successfully, with a focus on engagement and retention, and Andrew covered how to use data effectively, informing strategies and improving outcomes.

You can find the materials for each of their presentations on this link, as well as other resources that were mentioned and reviewed during the session. The presenter´s expertise on this field is wide ranging, having run complex, multi-agency coalitions with hundred of volunteers for years, so the discussion covered a lot of ground. The event also enabled the participants to establish new connections, bringing new ideas and partners for VITA and asset building, and new and potentially better services for the community.

Thanks to all of you that made it to the event – we hope this was the first of many. Hope to see you all in our next session!

CAHS year in review: Access Benefits Online

The Connecticut Association for Human Services (CAHS) started the Access Benefits Online (ABO) program in February 2010 to improve access to work supports. ABO is built on two main ideas:

  • To offer quality application assistance for public benefits in Community Based Organizations (CBOs) across the state.
  • A focus on serving hard to reach populations.

Our model is based in the following:

Monitor, Keyboard, and Mouse

  • Many CBOs have built trust within the community.  We rely in this trust to reach out to clients that would otherwise not apply for public benefits.
  • We train our CBO partners so they become a reliable, trusted access point to public benefits, with up to date information, a powerful software screening tool that can check eligibility for 12 public benefits (SNAP, TFA, Husky A, B, C and D, among others )  and good, reliable data to track their performance.
  •  The whole process should be seamless: the application is completed and sent to DSS by the CBO staff.

CAHS has steadily built a network of community partners across the state, from eight CBOs in 2010 to 35 sites this year. 2013 has been a year of growth, thanks to our partnership with the Community Health Center Association of Connecticut. Thirteen community health centers across the state use ABO to screen their clients for SNAP, Medicaid, Husky and other benefits, help them fill their applications and track enrollments. This has greatly increased the volume of clients we serve every month, from 266 screenings/month in 2012 to close to 800 this past year.

In 2013 CAHS and our partners screened more than 9,000 households for benefits covering more than 20,000 individuals. More than 8,000 were referred to DSS to apply for benefits. As the end of September, 3,709 households had been enrolled to at least one benefit, completing more than 6,200 benefit enrollments. ABO partners successfully focused on traditionally underserved groups: 46% of our clients were Hispanic, 17% African American. 28% spoke a language other than English in their household; 39% of them were under 18 years old.

 

Next year CAHS will continue working with our community partners and DSS to further improve and streamline benefit access in Connecticut. The Affordable Care Act will add many people to Medicaid, and CAHS will be there, helping them get the benefits they need.

To that, however, we need your help. Please support CAHS to help us provide these services that low income families rely on and have a better new year. With your donation we will be able to be in more place, help more families, make a bigger difference. And all with your help.

CAHS year in review: a new VITA season

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The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) is CAHS´longest running initiative.  For VITA, coordinates several coalitions of community based organizations in several

cities across the state to offer free tax preparation services to low income families. CAHS works as a convener, helping our partners recruit volunteers, prepare marketing materials, seek funding, coordinate efforts with IRS and train and certify volunteers. Our objective is to help working families get their tax returns filled for free, avoiding costly for profit tax preparers.

Our VITA work has informed our policy work since the start. One of our aims is to help families that are eligible for refundable tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Child Tax Credit) receive the full amount. Our advocacy for a state EITC derives from our experience promoting its federal version, and seeing how effective it is.

Our VITA program is growing. During the 2012 tax season CAHS coordinated a ne

Our work with VITA is not restricted to just tax returns, however. We are working with several of our partners to incorporate asset building and financial education to the services offered by our VItwork of 47 sites that completed close to 11,000 tax returns. These filings brought $18 million back to Connecticut in tax refunds; 38% of fillers were eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit.   For the 2013 tax season we will be working with 53 sites; we are expecting to complete more than 12,000 tax returns.  About a third of

TA sites. In others, we are also pairing tax preparation with benefit screening.

The 2014 tax season will start by the end of January – and we are still looking for volunteers. You can sign up here, if you are interested. If you want to help CAHS bring this service to more people across the state, or you want to boost our current efforts, you can also make a year end contribution to support this program. You can do it online here – it is tax deductible, and we will appreciate your support.

CAHS year in review: the Connecticut Money School

As we get close to the end of the year, it is time to have a look back and see the results of our work. We had a very busy year here at CAHS, with some of our programs having big expansions and others having a lot of bold, new ideas to move them forward. This week we will have a look back at each of our programs, and some of our plans for next year. Today, we will focus on the Connecticut Money School.

The Connecticut Money School:

CTMoneySchool_logoThe CT Money School (CMS) opened its virtual doors in 2009.  CMS is our financial education program. CAHS partners with community based organizations across the state, connecting them with volunteers that we have recruited and trained to provide financial education classes. Our aim is to help our partners improve their services, building financial education to their menu of services, and enabling them to connect to volunteers that can help them to build up these programs.

Between November 1st 2013 and October 31st 2013 (it is not quite the end of the year yet, so bear with me having non-calendar year numbers!) CAHS has partnered with 15 community agencies in Hartford, Bridgeport, Bristol, New Britain, New Haven and Plainville to offer more than 30 financial education workshops. 336 people enrolled and attended classes; 69% of them to a budgeting class. Two thirds of the students were female; 23% Hispanic and 19.5% Black.

We want to thank Citizens Bank for their funding for this program, and their trust and support. We have made many changes to CMS during 2013, and their support has been invaluable.

These numbers, however, only tell part of the story. CMS is creating a network of partners that can provide financial education services; our focus is not just processing as many students as possible, but building up the capacity of our partners.  This is bot We are also extending our Financial Avenue program for younger students, with very exciting results, as well as combining CMS with the rest of CAHS’ programs. More on that tomorrow.

Sorting out the CT Earned Income Tax Credit paperwork

Last week we learned from some of our partner VITA sites (CAHS coordinates a very active, statewide VITA network – one of our best programs!) that some families that were eligible for the Connecticut Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) were having some issues. After filling taxes and being approved by the IRS for the Federal EITC, they were getting lette

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rs from the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services (DRS) asking them for additional paperwork before they could approve the state EITC.

This is by itself not unusual; we know some people do forget to bring some documents, and it is natural that they do get one of these requests. What we found surprising was the amount of fillers receiving these letters; some VITA site coordinators were reporting that 10% of their clients has come back asking for more information, a clear signal that this was more than a few isolated cases. We reached out to Kevin Sullivan, the DRS Commissioner, for more information, as the number of letters seemed unusual.

Well, it was. It turns out that DRS sent out about 14,000 of these letters by mistake; the fillers are indeed eligible for the Connecticut EITC, and they should not have received that request for additional documentation. We are glad that DRS quickly detected the problem, and that they will send letters to those fillers correcting the mistake, as well as their tax refund.

So, if you are a Connecticut EITC filler and got a letter asking for more documents to be send in 30 days or less, hold tight. Probably a DRS glitch at work.

The public benefit obstacle course – and how to get out of it

Applying for public benefits is hard.  The Department of Social Services in Connecticut has an extraordinary amount of forms; just figuring out the right one takes some effort. Once the right application has been selected, the second hurdle always is the paperwork itself; with some applications running for 22 pages, completing the form is by itself a challenge. The third step is figuring out what additional documents are necessary to include with the application, which of course vary wildly from one benefit to the next. After getting all that right, it would be the time to figure out to what DSS office we need to send everything (harder than it seems, as it might not be the closest -and yes, the map on the DSS website is wrong) and then figuring out the interview process, making sure not to miss a single phone call.

It is not just a hard process – Connecticut actually has one of the most unwelcoming and convoluted benefit application systems in the nation, according to a recent study:

benefit_map

There are only eight states in the country that have no system in place whatsoever to apply for public benefits online – Connecticut is part of that undistinguished minority.  Fortunately, and thanks in part to the Affordable Care Act,  DSS is working to create an online web portal that will enable clients to apply directly from their computers. The system is (largely) on track, and will be operational late summer / early fall this year.

This won´t make applying for benefits exactly a breeze, in any case. The applications will remain long and confusing, paperwork complex and the process will be hard to navigate for many. CAHS has been working with more than 30 partner organizations to help clients get the benefits through our EarnBenefits Online (EBO) program, now in our fourth year of operation. Just in 2012 CAHS and our community partners screened close to 3,200 households for benefits using EBO, enrolling more than 1,500 households in public benefits.  We work with organizations serving hard to reach populations, in neighborhoods underserved by DSS, and also provide the software to high traffic sites like Community Health Centers.

The EBO program has proved highly successful, as we work with community organizations and clients to make the challenging obstacle course to DSS much easier. Starting our fourth year, we will keep working with partners and DSS to make sure that access to benefits in Connecticut is available to all that need them, without barriers or roadblocks.

Innovative Financing and Focus on Outcomes: Dec. 4 forum

CAHS is always interested in the potential for CT to improve outcomes, and to better offer services that advance our mission of ending poverty by empowering, equipping and engaging people to build a secure future.

Given the ever-increasing state budget shortfall, one area we are looking at is  innovative financing methods such as Social Impact Bonds, or SIBs.

SIBs are generating a lot of enthusiasm for their ability to generate private investment in public services, and to bring a new emphasis to both accountability and population-level results. They were piloted in England where they have been in use for a couple of years to fund services to reduce prisoner recidivism.

The concept is that private investors fund programming that will save society money, and they get back their money, and a profit, if and when their services produce the agreed-upon result – say, reduction in prisoners going back to jail.  This offers the opportunity to offer needed services,  gauge results based on population-level impact, break down the silos that divide and fracture programming, and allow funding to be combined over multiple years.

In the US, New York City has recently begun a program, funded by Mayor Bloomberg, and Massachusetts has just awarded two grants for SIBs to address chronic homelessness and juvenile recidivism. In CT, the Department of Correction applied to the US Department of Justice to use SIBs for programming to reduce prisoner recidivism in Bridgeport and Waterbury. That grant was not awarded, but interest remains.

There are other new and innovative ways of financing generating similar interest. One intriguing model model is Human Capital Performance Bonds in Minnesota.

CAHS is working with the Capital Region Council of Governments  and Community Impact Strategies to host informational conference December 4. These and other models will be explored and you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions of the people using these models in Massachusetts.

Some are concerned, and say these new financing methods would lead to undue profit for the private sector, or letting the state walk away from its obligation to fund human services.

Certainly, caution and oversight is warranted and needed. The incentives need to be carefully crafted and reflect the public interest.

But they offer the chance for our systems to recognize the value added by preventative services – the return on investment when we provide effective preventative services that prevent future increased costs to the state.

The Minnesota pilot identifies these goals:

“….using bonds to finance social services is an implicit recognition by the state that benefits often accrue over a number of years. (emphasis mine)

“For example, we don’t educate 5-year-olds because we hope they’ll be contributing members of society by the time they are 7. Currently the state tends to underinvest in social services, because budgeting rules recognize payback periods of only two to four years.

“Second, budgeting tends to take place inside strict silos, carefully guarded by state agencies. But as the work-force training example showed, costs and benefits are spread over many agencies. The Department of Employment and Economic Development pays for the services. The Departments of Human Services and Corrections see reductions in spending as a result. And the state’s coffers grow from increased tax revenue.

“Human Capital Performance Bonds provide a way of accounting for these costs and benefits. For the first time, the budgets of disparate state agencies will be considered from a single point of view — service providers’ impact on those budgets — and adjusted accordingly. This will help public agencies see and act upon the bigger-picture impact of human services.

“Finally, the focus shifts from activity to outcomes. How can we identify and fund those services that contribute to the health of our communities over the long run? Government budgets are notorious for funding activities (i.e., seat time for school children) rather than outcomes (how much they learned).”

Here are some other links on emerging financing methods that may be of interest: From Governing Magazine and a recent summary and history from the New York Times

Stay tuned for more news about the December 4 informational conference.