A cascade of lights shine at the Robeson County (NC) Fair. A new program based in this high poverty county helps families gain access to federal support.

[imgcontainer] [img:robersonfairone530.jpg] [source]Swirling Thoughts[/source] A cascade of lights shine at the Robeson County (NC) Fair. A new program based in this high-poverty county helps families gain access to federal support. [/imgcontainer]

A white house with a refurbished garage has earned the name Sacred Pathways, by facing head-on the challenges of persistent rural poverty.

With a mission of empowerment and meeting people where they are, this small community-based organization in Pembroke, North Carolina, has to date been primarily dedicated to feeding people. The organization serves two hot meals a day Monday through Friday, provides emergency food boxes through local churches, and distributes food as a partner in the regional Second Harvest food bank

Now, Sacred Pathways has taken on a new partner and another mission to nourish the local community. With The Benefit Bank® of North Carolina (TBB™-NC), Sacred Pathways is helping to connect low- and medium-income North Carolina families to tax credits, food and health benefits, and student financial aid. These government resources can constitute work supports and be key to moving struggling families out of poverty.

Sacred Pathways is located Robeson County, North Carolina, tucked between I-95 and the South Carolina line. Pembroke, the county seat (pop. 2973), is the home of the Lumbee tribe and of the 6,200-student University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

At the 2010 Census, Robeson County had highest poverty rate in the state: 31.5%. It is a minority-majority county – 38 percent American Indian, 29 percent white, 24 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.

Because of barriers to access and lack of knowledge, many people who are eligible for federal support, especially in persistent poverty places like Robeson County, don’t avail themselves of the financial and educational programs that could help them acquire training, better health care, and added income. An estimated $70 billion in work supports goes unclaimed by eligible households in the United States each year, $2.3 billion in North Carolina.

To increase access to such work supports, The Benefit Bank of North Carolina equips local community and faith-based organizations to screen clients and assist them in completing benefit applications and tax returns using a powerful, user-friendly online service called The Benefit Bank (TBB).   
[imgcontainer] [img:Sacred-Pathwaysguide530.jpg] [source]Michael Schultz[/source] The Benefit Bank- NC Southern Regional Coordinator Katina Perry (standing), trains Charles Harris, AmeriCorps VISTA, (right) and other Sacred Pathways volunteers to use The Benefit Bank. [/imgcontainer]
“The Benefit Bank helps make sure people don’t get lost in the bureaucratic structure,” said Dr. Ruth Woods, President of Sacred Pathways. Woods, formerly a professor at Fayetteville State University, has extensive experience in rural economic development.

As the income-tax season commenced at the end of January, Sacred Pathways volunteers were being trained to assist clients in completing federal and North Carolina tax returns, using The Benefit Bank. Three AmeriCorps VISTAs, Ruth Cihla, Charles Harris, and Caroline Stover, also serve at Sacred Pathways to build the capacity of the non-profit’s programs.

The Benefit Bank provides free federal self-serve tax preparation and completion of the Free Application for Federal Student AID (FAFSA) for any household making $60,000 or less.
[imgcontainer right] [img:Sacred-Pathwaysign320.jpg] [source]Michael Schultz[/source] Sacred Pathways serves some 100 hot meals each week, partners with area churches to distribute food, and now is working with The Benefit Bank to help residents gain access to federal work support. [/imgcontainer]
With support from Southwestern Regional Mental Health, Sacred Pathways recently opened a new computer lab with six computers and Internet service. In this rural area where the local library doesn’t currently offer public computer access, the lab is one of the only public-access computer facilities available. Free computer access and e-filing offer quicker refunds, savings taxpayers the fees of commercial tax preparation and refund-anticipation loans.

TBB-NC also helps working families in North Carolina to claim the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), possibly the nation’s most effective anti-poverty measure. The EITC is fully refundable and available to many low- and medium-income working individuals and families; even households that owe no taxes can still receive the credit — akin to a refund. Yet, the IRS estimates that as many as 1 in 5 eligible households fail to claim the EITC likely because people don’t know about it or don’t think they are eligible.

The Benefit Bank also furthers Sacred Pathways’ food mission, connecting clients to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) in North Carolina and formerly referred to as food stamps.

As a long-time educator and former assistant and associate school superintendent, Ruth Woods knows the importance of education, especially as it relates to work force development.  Some people “never even think about going to community college,” Woods says. She attests that programs like NC WorkKeys job readiness training program can make a big difference.

More than ever, community college students are having a hard time staying in college because they can’t pay the bills. Though they often don’t realize it, community college students may be able to receive Food and Nutrition Services benefits. To be eligible for FNS, community college students between the ages of 18-49 must meet at least one of the following criteria:

•    enrolled in SNAP Employment and Training or a similar program
•    work any number of hours in a federal or state work study program
•    work at least 20 hours a week
•    care for a dependent under the age of 12 (more rules apply)

Eligible students must also meet the program’s income and asset limits, which vary from state to state. For most people, asset limits are currently waived in North Carolina.

The Benefit Bank of North Carolina is part of MDC’s Works Supports Initiative, a national endeavor to connect low- and medium-income individuals and families to work supports using The Benefit Bank. MDC’s program currently operates in nine states: Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas.

Through local community-based organizations like Sacred Pathways in Robeson County, North Carolina, The Benefit Bank is making a difference in rural communities across the country.

Michael Schultz, a recent graduate of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, is an intern at MDC, a non-profit based in Durham, N.C.

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