Friday, April 17, 2009

Just Harvest explores Google Maps

They saw a need and created a tool to fix it. That is the basic description of how the Volunteer Pittsburgh Map was created by Just Harvest intern Lou Hanson and Americorps VISTA Brian Gilmore.

The function of the EARN program is to help Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) clients find placements where they can meet their work requirements for the program. When clients don’t meet the requirement, it hurts their assistance as well as the funding for the TANF program—even if clients are only short by an hour or two a week. After Just Harvest advocate Rochelle Jackson shared her concern about the program underutilizing volunteer opportunities that would help to fill those extra few hours, Lou and Brian got to work.

They decided a map would be the best tool for linking TANF clients with possible volunteer opportunities close to where they live and work. People also tend to be more willing to donate their time if it is supporting organizations in their community. After a few intensive weeks of internet searches, phone calls, and typing up information, the Volunteer Pittsburgh map was born.

The Google map tool is particularly helpful because it is interactive. Users can zoom in on their neighborhood, click on a colored placemark to get the site information, and even get a real image of the place by using the street view option. Sites are also color-coded so that users can search for sites that offer opportunities in their field of interest, such as medicine, education and environment.

This tool was so easy to use and so well-received by representatives of the EARN Centers that we decided to make another map to show Summer Food sites. Just like the Volunteer Pittsburgh map, users can zoom in on their neighborhood and find out where the closest summer food sites are where children and youth can receive breakfast, lunch, and snacks for free during the summer. Just click on a placemark to get the details of which meals are offered there and at what times.

We hope that these maps are helpful for you. Happy mapping!
- Lou Hanson, Just Harvest Intern

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More bad (and some good) news for struggling homeowners:

In times of crisis, it is inspiring to see individuals and organizations of all types reaching out to help those in need. Unfortunately, it is equally troubling to be reminded of the lengths some people will go to try to take advantage of those who are looking for help. I’m referring to specifically to mortgage modification scammers, who are in the business of duping struggling homeowners with fraudulent promises of financial assistance with refinancing mortgages.

The scammers prey on homeowners who are in danger of defaulting, by using official-sounding names to make folks think they are taking advantage of President Obama’s promise to refinance or modify 7 to 9 million mortgages. Companies advertising these services are often fraudulent, going so far as to try to mimic the actual mortgage lender in mailings they send to homeowners who are at risk of defaulting. Anyone using their services is at risk of losing their savings or their homes.

The good news is that the government seems committed to cracking down on these scammers. They have sent warning letters to 71 companies who were running suspicious advertisements, and are currently investigating 2100 mortgage fraud cases. "We will shut down fraudulent companies more quickly than before. We will target companies that otherwise would have gone unnoticed under the radar," says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner. Here’s hoping the government’s active stance against these scammers shuts down or discourages fraudulent companies. Until then, let’s extend our own helping hand by warning friends, families, and neighbors about the risk, and make sure no one we know is taken advantage of by these ruthless frauds.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Unemployment and the Stimulus Plan

A recent article on National Public Radio (NPR) notes that the unemployment rate has reached 8.5%, the highest it has been since 1983. In the month of January, 741,000 people lost their jobs, the largest number of layoffs in a single month since October of 1949. With numbers like these, it can cause a bit of head-scratching to hear that governors in some states are refusing stimulus money included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which provides substantial financial incentives to states that reform their unemployment benefits programs.

What specific reforms are required for a state to receive funding? In order to receive one-third of the funding, states must implement an “alternative base period” policy, which would take into account more recent wages in determining eligibility. Many states currently don’t count the most recent three months of earnings in determining if a worker is eligible. According to a briefing from the National Employment Law Project, over 40% of workers who fail to qualify for benefits because of insufficient wages would qualify under the “alternative base period” policy. There seems to be little objection to implementing this policy.

However, in order to qualify for the additional two-thirds of funding, states are required to implement policies that have proven more controversial in the eyes of some governors.
States would have to extend benefits to two of four potential groups in order to qualify: 1) part-time workers; 2) workers who leave work for compelling family reasons, such as illness or disability of a family member, domestic violence, or moving to accompany a spouse after a job change; 3) workers who have exhausted their benefits as a result of long-term unemployment, and who are enrolled in an approved job training program; 4) workers with dependents, who are receiving benefits, but whose benefits would be increased to help them care for their families.

The governors who are rejecting the additional two-thirds of funding seem to be doing so primarily because they believe expanding unemployment insurance will create a future tax burden on businesses when the federal funding runs out. The National Employment Law Project has responded with a press release entitled “Get The Facts Straight Governors”. In it, the NELP makes several points important points regarding the governors’ refusal of funding.

First, there is no requirement in the bill that the States make the expansions permanent. If they find the changes to be too costly in the future, they can repeal the expansions. Second, some states are at risk of dropping below the minimum level of the funds required in their unemployment trust funds. If this happens, those states will be forced to raise taxes on businesses to return the fund to the minimum required level. Therefore, considering the rising numbers of unemployment insurance claims, refusing to accept stimulus money may mean higher taxes. Also, the federal funding would cover the cost of the expansion for several years (up to 66 for some states). That would give states a buffer period to both evaluate the expansion and work to find reforms that would not require increased business taxes.

The expansion of unemployment insurance is intended to help a greater number of people through this economic crisis, during a time of high job loss and weak job market. Governors who choose to protect businesses from potential, future tax increases, instead of expanding unemployment benefits to those who are in need right now seem to missing the point regarding who truly needs protection now.
- Brian Gilmore, AmeriCorps VISTA

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Over $2.5 million with two weeks to go!

With only two weeks left in our “Give Paychecks a Boost” campaign, Just Harvest tax preparers have completed over 1200 Federal tax returns free of charge, with clients receiving over $2.5 million dollars in refunds! The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is responsible for over half of the refund amount, “making work pay” for hundreds of Just Harvest’s tax clients.

These impressive numbers would not be possible with the hard work and dedication of our tax preparers and volunteers, who have logged over 1800 paid and 650 volunteer hours of service. Thanks to everyone who has supported us and made this campaign a resounding success, and a tremendous economic benefit to both low- and middle-income workers and to the Greater Pittsburgh region as a whole. And for those last minute filers, we still have some appointments available. Call 412-431-8964 for more information, or to set up an appointment.