Pulse: Power: The ‘Ware On Poverty

With Hurricane Katrina sending images of American neglect around the globe, poverty has suddenly become the disease that billionaires and former presidents are vowing to cure. And some of them think Bob Brand has the right medicine. Brand runs Solutions for Progress, the nation’s most promising anti-poverty lab, out of a sleek office building on South Broad. His vaccine: an online program called the Benefit Bank.

Brand estimates that $35 billion in government benefits — mostly tax refunds, food stamps and Medicaid — goes unclaimed each year because eligible Americans don’t fill out all the paperwork. For them, the Benefit Bank is like a free, all-inclusive H&R Block, run out of a local church or community center. After a counselor helps the user answer a series of questions, Brand’s system automatically generates completed tax and benefit forms with instructions for mailing, and archives the user’s data online.

Brand, 60, has long been active in city politics. He served in the Green and Goode administrations, and he and his wife, Elizabeth Werthan, financially support local Democrats. Three years ago, critics scoffed that it was “theoretically impossible” for one database system to cut through so much red tape, but after a successful trial run in Philly last year during tax season, funders have come calling. The most exciting: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is rumored to be mulling a $20 million grant.
Brand says the feds’ Katrina screw-ups proved what he already knew. “If we need any further evidence of how dysfunctional technology cuts people off from the benefits they need, that would be it,” he says.