Welfare options for the formerly middle class?
January 9, 2010 8:44 PM   Subscribe

What kinds of social assistance are available for members of the middle class who get caught in the current economic downturn?

My partner and I were doing everything right - good educations, student loans paid off early, a smallish mortgage on a house we could afford, decent jobs, and our consumer debt generally is just one credit card with a balance under $5K. We were living fairly frugally, and within our means. One of us is a wage slave, the other, a grad student.

Then the layoffs came. Our state unemployment insurance just ran out (Illinois), and the job market is bleak. Our savings are now depleted, and a grad student stipend only goes so far. We had a baby last year (the same week as the layoff!), health insurance that runs out at the end of this month, no chance for COBRA, and we need help, but have no idea where to even start or what kind of help exists for people like us. We don't have family to turn to for financial help.

I know welfare exists, in theory (because talk radio guys are always yelling about it!), but I don't even really know what that means, in terms of actual help, or where to turn in terms of government or nonprofit resources to find financial help. What kinds of state/federal assistance is available to help keep families like ours afloat?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You might qualify for food stamps if your monthly gross income is less than $1,984. That can get you a few hundred dollars a month, allowing you to feed yourselves and the kid some semblance of a nutritious diet.
posted by katemonster at 8:56 PM on January 9, 2010

I have similar troubles and got my kids approved for Medicaid pretty quick (6 wks). That was about a year ago, things are still tough but at least that is not a concern!
Good luck!
posted by bebrave! at 9:02 PM on January 9, 2010

It seems likely that you'd qualify for WIC - http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/
posted by blaneyphoto at 9:05 PM on January 9, 2010

Food stamps are a very good idea. I would look for a local anti-hunger non-profit. At least in NY, they provide very useless information, are nicer in general, and even allow you to bypass some of the unpleasantness of waiting in long lines at the government building. I know several families like yours that have received food stamps recently and they are a huge huge help.
posted by melissam at 9:09 PM on January 9, 2010

First, don't be ashamed by bad luck.

Second, don't be reluctant to take advantage of what support net does exist for you, in whichever form you may find it.

I don't know Illinois specifically, but a quick search for public assistance brings up:

It is their job to help folks in trouble.

Also, many / most food pantries and charity food programs will give assistance to anyone willing to enter and ask. Again, don't think you are alone here. Many of the folks seeking help from food pantries, churches and the like are "formerly middle class", or perhaps better put temporarily down on their luck.

The people at these sorts of locations can also be a resource for other support and help you might need.
posted by meinvt at 9:18 PM on January 9, 2010

It is also worth knowing that all formal government aid will be handled through the state level. The federal aid goes to support state programs. State aid may be spent to support local initiatives, but these will likely be through specific private or non-profit organizations, and less likely through any local government.
posted by meinvt at 9:25 PM on January 9, 2010

In theory, what you are thinking of is probably TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) which is what a lot of people consider welfare these days. I don't have any experience with this process in Illinois, but generally know how it works other places. Realistically, this is probably not going to be enough cash assistance to pay all of even a small mortgage, but in a lot of areas its a more convenient way to get in with food stamps and medicaid without dealing with dozens of different people and programs. If you decide to pursue it, I'd suggest doing a little bit of research before you commit to participating in the cash assistance program; some of them require very significant time commitments and are meant for individuals who have barriers that keep them out of even minimum wage jobs. Ask a lot of questions so you know what you are getting into.

Also, I'm sure you are keeping up with all of the job openings in your area, but if you are no longer collecting unemployment, think about doing temp work. At least in my area, employers who don't feel stable enough to hire full-time permanent employees have been using a lot of skilled temp workers (from temp agencies) so if this isn't an avenue you've explored yet, I'd look into it.
posted by mjcon at 9:40 PM on January 9, 2010

TANF is probably what you want to look for. It may have changed since the housing market has crashed, but when I worked with low-income people who were also homeowners, they were usually told by the gov agencies to try to sell their house, because it made them ineligible for a lot of government aid. YMMV, though.
For insurance, there should be options for children through the state. It may be harder to get coverage for yourself and your spouse, but hopefully there are options. Does his school offer health insurance for grad students? Check out this link for more info on state options.
posted by ishotjr at 9:51 PM on January 9, 2010

*the house made them ineligible for most government aid because it was an asset that put them above the financial thresholds. Owning a house wasn't in and of itself prohibited to get aid.
posted by ishotjr at 9:52 PM on January 9, 2010

A short term solution that a lot of folks may not know about--many universities offer to their students short-term no interest loans in the hundreds of dollars in crisis situations, like to help make up the difference in a month's bills until something changes. You would probably need to go to the graduate school office (or whoever handles financial aid and students' concerns) and say "I am in a desperate situation and need some financial help".

And, as others have said, non-profit food banks and soup kitchens tend to not ask questions about why you need the help. I know our local rescue mission has said that many of the people currently eating meals there right now own their own homes. And I know a food pantry that is mostly supporting families with two working parents.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:36 AM on January 10, 2010

Another place to try if you just need a few hundred to catch up on bills, car repairs, etc: "http://www.modestneeds.org/">Modest Needs.

Best of luck! There are lots and lots of us. Don't be ashamed - this economy has bitten lots of people in the butt.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:25 AM on January 10, 2010

The place to start is to apply for benefits from the state Department of Human Services. There is a unified intake procedure for state and state-administered federal programs, and you can start the ball rolling with a mail-in application, although you'll eventually be called in for an in-person interview once your application is reviewed. They will let you know what you qualify for. There is a good possibility you will be eligible for WIC (a coupon program for specific high-nutrition foods like milk and carrots), insurance for the child and possibly for you as parents, possibly food stamps (which now come in the form of a debit-card like card program).

But you probably won't be eligible for cash payments (TANF, long ago known as AFDC--the so-called "welfare checks"). TANF income limits are very low.

You also may be eligible for help with utility bills through LIHEAP (separate application process from the above).

My understanding is that your house as an asset should not count against your eligibility. However, other assets such as retirement savings may.

Also, there may be welfare-to-work requirements in terms of working, engaging in demonstrable job-seeking efforts and/or being in school. When I was "on welfare" (also in Illinois) as a grad student, grad school did not count towards these requirements (the underlying messaging being, if you have an undergraduate degree and are in grad school and can't afford to support your family, they expect you to attempt to get a job to support said family, either instead of or in addition to grad school). If you're stipend is from a TA/RA position, you might be alright. If you're on fellowship, it could be problematic.

Also, file your taxes ASAP if you are expecting an earned income credit for 2009!
posted by drlith at 6:33 AM on January 10, 2010

Yeah, nthing food stamps. Don't feel bad about it at all, I have several close friends who've used them from time to time. I think for a family with a child you get like 500/month, depending on your savings and income. It's really easy- you just find your food stamps office: go early in the morning if possible when they open to avoid a line, you get a ticket, see a case worker for about 20 minutes, you're in and out within like an hour. Food stamps aren't like they were 20 years ago either. It comes and looks like a debit card, and you can use it at any grocery store (including places like food co-ops, Whole foods, and even some farmers markert). I think a lot of people feel embarrassed at the thought of using them, but it's really a simple process, and it's something that you can go tomorrow and apply for.
posted by Rocket26 at 6:59 AM on January 10, 2010

Oh, the food stamps office may be located in the Department of Social Service office in your area, if you're trying to find the place. mefi me if you want other tips.
posted by Rocket26 at 7:03 AM on January 10, 2010

It may not feel like it now, but you and your partner and your baby will be ok. Advice above is right: getting LINK (food stamps) is the first and fastest thing you can do that will make an immediate difference. You can apply for LINK here: http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=33698

Additionally, since your baby is under 5 years old, you're also eligible for WIC. It's supplemental food, like LINK, and it's a little something extra on top of food stamps. More about WIC is here: http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=30513

Please keep in mind that there are certain hoops to jump through when applying. A prominent blogger in Chicago has friends who are in a similar situation to you, and she posted her friend's experience in applying for WIC, which you should read. It also tells you what you can expect at your WIC interview, and what you'll likely get: http://trueslant.com/megancottrell/2009/08/18/whats-weird-about-wic/

I have heard many anecdotal experiences that when one partner is in school, they are hassled by Illinois DHS to stop going to school and get a job. If you and your partner are unmarried, it is probably in your best interest to separate yourselves as much as possible on forms you fill out, or the student will be hassled. It's sick - everyone except DHS seems to understand that graduate students are on a path to greater earning potential - but you have to protect yourself. Here is an example of someone this happened to: http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/one-story-up/2009/08/the-trouble-with-tanf.html
posted by juniperesque at 8:05 AM on January 10, 2010

A lot of communities have help with paying your heating bill. I'm sure they are being pushed to the limit right now. But you should apply and learn how to apply early next year. Your local food bank or Salvation Army will know where the "heating assistance" office is located. It is usually funded through donations to the electric company so it is separate from government public assistance.

At the same place you can usually apply for assistance with a landline phone. If you need a phone to be able to call 911, and I think having a baby qualifies you for that, you may be able to get a break on your basic phone bill.

Every little bit helps.

Also, in every community there are one or 2 charities that will pay a once in a lifetime rental or mortgage payment. Sometimes this is the Salvation Army, Lutheran Family Services. Again the people at the food bank know if there is anything like that where you live.

If you have a St. Vincent De Paul or Catholic Family Services sometimes they give a one time cash help with electric bill or gas for your car.

Oh sorry, those aren't government programs like you asked specifically. I guess i feel like you are not going to qualify for government assistance (I have no idea, you should still apply). So I am jumping to plan B.
posted by cda at 9:58 AM on January 10, 2010

Check if your local utility company offers a special low-income rate. Here in So Cal, gas and electric is run by SDGE, and they give something like a 20% discount on your bill if you meet income thresholds (one grad student stipend for a family of three would probably qualify). All you have to do is submit a few documents in the mail to prove your status, and for people already enrolled in food stamps, you don't even have to do that, you just ask and they start giving you the discount.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:41 AM on January 10, 2010

Can you take out another student loan to tide you over until jobs? Are you anywhere near a medical school? They usually have clinics with a sliding fee scale based on income. Get Medicaid for the babe, definitely. Good luck and stay warm!
posted by mareli at 12:22 PM on January 10, 2010

You may wish to double-check that you have no more unemployment. Currently, people are eligible for up to almost two years of unemployment benefits. There's the 26 weeks of Illinois state unemployment. Then there's EUC (the federal extension) Tiers 1 (20 weeks); 2 (14 weeks); and, as of November, 3 (13 weeks) and 4 (6 weeks), as well as the State Extended Benefits program, SEB Tiers 1 (13 weeks) and 2 (7 weeks).

Congress reauthorized the unemployment programs on 12/23 as part of a defense appropriations bill, through the end of February. (That doesn't mean that unemployment benefits stop at the end of February -- it means whatever "tier" you're in at the end of February is the last one you'll be authorized for.) And there's a high probability that by the end of February there'll be a jobs bill passed which would include a further reauthorization through year's end; that's next up on the legislative agenda.

You can check your "balance" of unemployment benefits (i.e. how much you're currently authorized for) by calling IDES' TeleServe and picking 3 at the main menu to get payment information, and then 2 to get your current balance.

I'm not saying you haven't already checked all this out, Anonymous, but it's been confusing and whirlwindy enough that it was worth a comment.
posted by MikeHarris at 5:52 PM on January 10, 2010

This, by the way, is a good link to bookmark to keep an eye on various unemployment assistance things for Illinois.
posted by MikeHarris at 5:53 PM on January 10, 2010

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