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Each week, we highlight a tech company that's working on one of the five existential challenges. This week, we focused on the wealth inequality and Propel. (As always, they didn't pay us for coverage.)

If you don't know much about “means-tested welfare,” you’re not alone. Unless you’ve relied on it in the past, it's probably something you haven't encountered much at all. That's because means testing is a system of eligibility that distinguishes between those who are in need and those who aren't. It's meant to ensure that every dollar goes to those it can help the most, and it makes up a big part of our social safety net:


Americans are on nutrition assistance


Americans are on


spent annually on
means-tested welfare

And yet, it's actually really fucking hard to rely on the American safety net. It’s an opaque space: those who provide it don't advertise it, and those who need it don't want it to be part of their identity. Relatively few people are thinking about how stigmatizing these systems are, let alone how to improve the experience. Take EBT, the debit card replacement for food stamps:

Typically, you'd have to call a 1-800 number to check the balance of an EBT card. And if it got declined when shopping, the cashier would ask what you want to put back. So you're holding up the line, slowly deciding "I don't want this apple, let's see if it makes it under the balance. I don't want this loaf of bread..."

— Jimmy Chen

This sort of embarrassment had stuck with Jimmy Chen since childhood. Jimmy is an entrepreneur based in New York, a long way away from the financial struggles of his youth. He'd been fortunate in the past few years, landing jobs at LinkedIn and Facebook, where he was surrounded by peers who were "changing the world," — for themselves. He saw colleagues leave to build on-demand apps for laundry, food, and cleaning. You are best at solving the problems you know, but having experienced the logistical indignities of our social safety net, Jimmy knew that tech could aim higher than further cushioning the privileged few. So he drew on what he knew. His loving home. His father being laid off. Trouble putting food on the table. The embarrassing checkout ritual.

In 2014, Jimmy founded Propel with one simple idea: to replace that 1-800 number with an app, FreshEBT. With their EBT balance at a glance, early users were able to reclaim some dignity. Since then, Propel has helped over 2 million EBT recipients do the same.

And they're hiring.

Here are some of Propel's open roles as of Sep 09, 2019:

Front-end Engineer

Engineering | New York

Full-stack Software Engineer

Engineering | New York

General Application

Future positions | New York
(and some more!)
Jimmy credits the diversity of the team as a key factor in Propel's impact; "a diverse team will have more experience with the real problems facing real people — you build what you know." This breadth of perspective has helped them expand FreshEBT in a particularly clever way: they advertise additional aid, coupons, and job opportunities in-app. "We've processed 75k job applications through the app's job board and saved our users over $20M in coupons." A Harvard study even found they were able to improve EBT value by a full 2 days' worth of groceries per month.

And that's just the start. Propel's mission — to help low-income Americans take control of their welfare and finances — has no shortage of available challenges. America's safety net is thinning, and was already threadbare to begin with.


of Americans believe too
many people receive aid


of Americans live below the
poverty line


cuts over 10y proposed
by Trump

Means testing always leaves people in the gaps — nearly 13 million are qualified but not receiving aid. But for those who are, Propel is building tools to let them take back control over their spending and their lives.

If you want to help fight wealth inequality, apply for a job or refer a friend!

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Project Mobilize is written and curated by Patrick Perini and Alec Davis, with special thanks to Renée Holden, Derek Horkel, Ezra Butler, Jonas Wisser, and Kanav Jain.

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