Gifting the Freedom to Dream: How MacKenzie Scott’s $20 Million Gift Can Solve a $60 Billion Problem

Year after year, millions of families across America struggle to buy groceries, heat their homes, afford medical care, and meet other basic needs. The cruel truth is that at the same time, more than $60 billion a year in available government help goes untapped.

It doesn’t have to be this way — and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, joined by other supporters, is enabling Benefits Data Trust (BDT) to put an end to this travesty in the next decade.

BDT, which received a $20 million gift from Ms. Scott, is one of the 465 nonprofit recipients of her generosity in her latest round of giving. Her charitable support comes as too many individuals who were already fighting to stay afloat before the COVID-19 pandemic find themselves more under water today. More than 1 in 10 people in the U.S. experience poverty, and 1 in 8 struggle to put food on the table — including many who considered themselves comfortably middle class before the pandemic and for the first time faced the challenges of accessing programs paying for food, health care and more. In the months ahead, millions more may lose access to current benefits, see them decline when the federal public health emergency declaration is lifted, or face new challenges as prices rise for food, gas and more.

Like BDT, most nonprofits have dreams of transforming society and tackling the root causes standing in the way. But too often the hunt for cash to make next quarter’s payroll consumes the time and concentration that would be better used to drive innovations needed to create a better future for those struggling today. Ms. Scott’s unrestricted gift liberates BDT to focus on our exponential impact.

It’s a gift we all need.

As University of Chicago behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir documented in their book, Scarcity, we all make stronger decisions when we are not operating from a state of scarcity, whether as a nonprofit CEO, a frontline worker, a parent or a student.

Just as Ms. Scott’s gift enables our organization the space to go big, benefit programs — such as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), Pell Grants and Medicaid — give people in need more bandwidth to focus on tomorrow rather than just trying to survive today. From eating better to keeping up with prescriptions, access to benefits clears a pathway to changing your life for the better.

But that opportunity is elusive for many. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has coined the term “sludge” to refer to bureaucratic obstacles that prevent people from getting what they need and make people feel their government is not there for them. Sludge can involve required in-person visits and weekly reports; duplicative application requirements; and so much more. “… if you are poor, you have to focus on a wide range of immediately pressing problems,” Sunstein writes. “If the government is asking poor people to navigate a complex system or fill out a lot of forms, they might be especially likely to give up.”

Easy access to services is something most of us who are better off take for granted. With computers, many of us can immediately begin applying for a mortgage with little hassle. Even more of us can use our phones to order groceries for delivery within hours. We can also file tax returns and renew driver’s licenses. So why can’t someone with little to no financial means apply for a few hundred dollars of food assistance with the same dignity and ease?

This is the premise on which BDT was launched: Warren Kantor, our founder, completed his widowed mother’s application for benefits for years. He later founded BDT based on the strategy of adopting credit card industry technology to help identify people eligible for benefits. And that’s what we do.

At BDT, our team of outreach specialists, data scientists and policy analysts work every day to improve health and financial security for families. Some spend time on the phone walking older adults, veterans, and single mothers through a benefits screening process. Some are software and data engineers who look for efficient ways to comb through data to determine how best to connect people to benefits they’re missing out on. Yet others work closely with public servants to improve government service delivery. To date, we have helped people enroll in 800,000 benefits, putting more than $9 billion in critical dollars within people’s reach.

The ripple effect of this support is transformative. For example, higher enrollment in food assistance programs leads to healthier infants, higher achieving students, and grandparents who make fewer hospital and emergency room visits, the latter of which drives down Medicaid costs. Making sure Black and Hispanic girls have enough to eat so they can focus on middle school math skills can boost diversity in computing and engineering jobs. And teens who receive assistance applying for college financial aid are more likely to complete their applications, making low-income students more economically mobile.

Simply put: Building a stronger and healthier society can happen when every person quickly and easily receives the assistance they are eligible for when they need it. Over the next decade, BDT, working with government and other sectors, will make the challenge of accessing benefits a thing of the past — work that will take more than $20 million, but ultimately drive solutions to create lasting prosperity and yield exponential returns to our nation.

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CEO, Benefits Data Trust. National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee member and Girl Scouts of USA board. Michigander at heart. https://bdtrust.org

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Trooper Sanders

Trooper Sanders

CEO, Benefits Data Trust. National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee member and Girl Scouts of USA board. Michigander at heart. https://bdtrust.org

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