770,000 Harris County residents struggle to make ends meet. Better access to public assistance could bring them much-needed relief.
In a county of almost 5 million people, 16.4% live at or below the federal poverty line and struggle to meet their basic needs. Yet, public assistance is difficult to get — and keep. Arduous application processes, a lack of awareness about available benefits, and social stigma all contribute to gaps in use.
Community-based organizations, schools, and healthcare providers are well-poised to help families overcome these obstacles. However, public benefit programs are also difficult to navigate, and they operate without assistive tools to cut down on time and red tape. This causes the benefits enrollment gap to widen, putting our most vulnerable populations at risk — especially children and their families, those without reliable Internet access, and low-income Harris County renters.
An astounding $60+ billion in public benefits assistance goes unused annually in the United States. Connective’s new research with data partner Benefits Data Trust (BDT) shows that almost $1 billion goes untouched annually in Harris County. By addressing the gaps in access at a local level, we can keep more households from slipping deeper into poverty.
How can we close public benefit gaps and tackle poverty in Harris County? Over 50 representatives of local organizations and agencies gathered to find a way to improve the way eligible families access their available benefits. For 20 weeks, navigators, social service providers, governments, and other community leaders envisioned a Public Benefits Hub: a one-stop shop for screening and navigating public benefits in a clear and dignified way.
How it works: A seeker of benefits or someone assisting them accesses the Hub to understand their eligibility for various local and federal benefits (e.g., SNAP, WIC, etc.). The Hub also kickstarts the application process and offers support on the web, by phone or text, or through in-person assistance. The Hub proactively seeks feedback from users in order to make it even easier for them to apply for benefits in the future.
Who would benefit from the Public Benefits Hub?
Children and their families
Enrollment in public benefits sustains favorable health outcomes for thousands, primarily children and their families, who recently lost pandemic-era healthcare coverage. Studies show that children who receive CHIP coverage are more likely to have better health outcomes than their eligible uninsured peers, but CHIP remains one of the most significant gaps in Harris County.
While children on WIC have better quality diets at 24 months than their non-recipient peers, WIC is another benefit that remains woefully underutilized.
Households without reliable Internet access
According to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans say the Internet was essential during the pandemic when education, work, and social lives moved online. According to the Harris County Office of Broadband, digital equity is essential to civic participation, learning, and access to essential services.
However, inequitable access to technology, which was more visible than ever at the peak of COVID-19, remains a lingering issue that we have new federal resources to tackle.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a new federal resource designed to reduce the digital divide. By providing $30 per month toward internet service for eligible households, the ACP aims to close accessibility gaps. However, if we fail to prioritize ACP enrollment locally, the digital divide in Harris County will inevitably remain.
We envision that Harris County residents will be able to utilize the Public Benefits Hub to assess their eligibility for more well-known programs like Medicaid and WIC, and the system will automatically guide eligible households to apply for the ACP. Using this approach, we could start to enroll the more than 430,000 eligible households missing out on $155 million in unused ACP benefits annually.
Low-income, cost-burdened renters
Nearly half the renter households in Harris County are cost-burdened, and after Las Vegas, Greater Houston has the most severe. shortage of affordable and available rental homes for extremely low-income renters in the country.
In 2019, 1 in every 25 households got evicted, and eviction rates have skyrocketed by 77% in the County over pre-pandemic levels.
How can access to supplemental income programs like SNAP help alleviate the affordable housing and eviction crisis? Since enrollment in SNAP means residents could qualify for many other public benefits, closing this gap is critical to renters’ economic stability and mitigating the overall costs evictions have on our community.
What We Can Do Now
With $370 billion in investments through the Inflation Reduction Act, it’s more critical than ever to build infrastructure to ensure that Harris County claims its share of these resources
We must act now to seize the opportunity placed before us: a Harris County where individuals have clear, dignified access to public benefits assistance.
Interested in joining us to build a Public Benefits Hub?
Sign up for a conversation here.