Seven years ago, Jimmy Chen founded fintech startup Propel with an app aimed at Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients. Specifically, it helped them check their balances from their smartphone, as well as browse deals at stores, see which places accepted food stamps and look for jobs. The app was called Fresh EBT, after the Electronic Benefits Transfer card with which individuals get access to benefits.
Now, the company is changing the app’s name to Providers, while also expanding its scope with a new checking account and debit card capability. The goal: to address the fragmented nature of many low-income users’ financial lives and create a one-stop-shop for Americans to manage government benefits and other income, side-by-side.
“You can manage not just SNAP benefits, but a lot of other money, as well,” says Chen. “For families with limited income, making it through the month means managing all of your financial resources, whether they’re benefits like SNAP, government cash payments, or earned wages.”
Not in a Vacuum
Specifically, the new features include a Mastercard debit account called Providers Card, plus opportunities to save and earn money.
The idea for the name change and new features flowed from conversations with users. “We came to realize people don’t manage their SNAP benefits in a vacuum,” says Chen. That is, there are multiple other programs and other resources with which users make it through the month—and that creates challenges in managing all their disparate sources of money. With that in mind, Chen decided what was needed was a debit card that would go through a partner bank and be branded with Propel’s name.
Most important, however, would be the ability for people to view their government benefits and cash balances in the same app. “If you’re low income, your financial picture is very fragmented,” says Chen. “Figuring out how much you have to go shopping means looking at various government programs and how much you have in your bank account.” With the new capability, users can have government benefits like the Child Tax Credit or Supplemental Security Income directly deposited into an account alongside income from employers or gig work, and then spend the money wherever Mastercard is accepted.
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Also, users can lock the card inside the app, only unlocking it when they’re ready to make a purchase, a feature added to address users’ security questions.
The number of Propel’s app users soared during the pandemic, according to Chen. More than five million SNAP users turn to the app every month. One factor, of course, was an increase in the number of people receiving SNAP benefits—37 million people received food stamps February 2020 compared to about 42 million now, according to Chen. Also, changes to safety net programs have created more uncertainty about how much users can expect to receive and when. “One thing about our app is it does a lot to reduce uncertainties,” he says.
Propel also built a constantly updated benefits page with information about things like the eviction moratorium or assistance to help pay for utility bills. “That will continue to be important even as a lot of these programs are winding down,” he says. “There will still be pockets of these programs that our users will need access to.”