Where to turn when you're desperate
By Liz Pulliam Weston
Every day, people fall off the bottom rung of the economic ladder. They lose their jobs or their homes, or both, and have too little savings to cushion the blow.
Lately, though, it seems more people tumbling off the ladder are those who've never needed help before. Food banks and housing counselors report an influx of formerly middle-class and even upper-middle- class people who have little idea of what resources may be available to them.
A network of federal, state, local government and nonprofit agencies provide aid to low-income folks who need help paying for, among other things:
Medical and dental care.
Many states and some nonprofits also provide cash grants or loans to needy individuals and families. If you're trying to cope with little or no income and ballooning expenses, read on for details of various programs and when you should consider applying.
If you don't need the information right now, consider bookmarking this column anyway. You never know when you or someone you love might need a hand
Guides to benefits
GovBenefits. gov should be your first stop. This federal government site has an interactive tool that can help you identify the aid programs you might be eligible for, along with links that can connect you to state resources.
Other places to check: Dialing 211 in some areas will link you to an operator who can help you find services you might qualify for (through a United Way-sponsored program). Also, try your state human-services agency's Web site.
Bottom line: These resources will give you an overview of an array of government programs you might qualify for, and you don't necessarily have to be broke to benefit. If you're eligible and need the help offered, you should apply; your tax dollars paid for these programs while you were working.
Government food programs
About 28 million low-income Americans get help buying groceries every month, thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture' s Food Stamp Program.
A family of four with a monthly gross income of $2,238 or less could qualify for food stamps worth $542 a month. The family typically must have less than $2,000 in "countable" assets, such as money in bank accounts. The value of a vehicle worth more than $4,650 may be considered as well. The calculations for eligibility are pretty complicated and vary somewhat by state, so use the eligibility calculator at the Food Stamp Program home page.
If you're pregnant or breast-feeding, or have children younger than 5, you may qualify for WIC (Women, Infants and Children) aid, which includes nutritional assistance to at-risk mothers and children.
Bottom line: If you qualify, use the aid in good conscience. The programs were set up to help the most-at-risk individuals and families avoid hunger.
Food stamps might not be enough, or you may not qualify for help. If that's the case, America's Second Harvest is a food bank network that provides a food bank locator you can search by ZIP code or state.
Food banks currently are experiencing heavy demand, and donations haven't kept up. The federal government has dramatically reduced food contributions in recent years, and dollars contributed by other sources don't go as far with both demand and food prices rising.
Bottom line: If you need this resource, by all means, use it. But since there's not enough to go around, use food banks only as a last resort.
If you're facing foreclosure, you should contact a housing counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which also has information about avoiding foreclosure and foreclosure scams on its site.
If you need rental assistance, HUD is the place to start as well. Rental-assistance vouchers (known as Section 8) allow you to choose your own apartment or house, but the waiting list is years long. Public housing or private subsidized housing may be a better bet. HUD also has links to state rental-assistance programs for people with low incomes and disabilities.
Bottom line: These resources are available to try to prevent people from losing their homes and/or becoming homeless. If you qualify for help, consider applying.
Most utilities, including phone and energy companies, have "lifeline" accounts that offer basic or discounted service to low-income customers.
And the federal government will provide $4.5 billion in 2009 to help people pay their energy bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The money is divvied among the states, which set their own criteria for who is eligible, although the states can't exclude folks below 110% of the poverty line. Here's basic information on how LIHEAP can help, and here's a link to the state programs.
The Weatherization Assistance Program helps low-income people make their homes more energy-efficient to lower their heating and cooling bills. Like the energy-assistance program, the weatherization program is administered through the states. The weatherization site has general information about eligibility and links to the state programs.
Some utilities have other programs that benefit low-income customers, such as the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water's refrigerator- exchange program. Qualifying customers get a new energy-efficient fridge to replace their old kilowatt-sucking one. Check with your local utilities' Web sites for similar programs.
Bottom line: Don't risk getting your utilities shut off or using so little that you put your life at risk. Every year, people die of cold or excessive heat because they were trying to save on energy. Others die in house fires caused by candles used to provide light. If you qualify for help, take it.
Municipal bus systems typically provide reduced fares for low-income riders, and many cities have other transportation services for the poor, especially those who are disabled or covered by Medicaid. Check out the Web site of your area's transportation department for details, or use a search engine, combining the name of your city or state with "low-income transportation" to uncover possible resources.
A few scattered counties nationwide have a Ways to Work program, which provides loans of up to $4,000 to low-income families that can't otherwise get loans for the purchase or repair of a car needed to get to work.
Gas vouchers, taxi vouchers or bus tokens may be available from local charities, such as churches or other faith-based organizations, including The Salvation Army and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Bottom line: If you qualify for public transportation discounts, use them. Ditto for the Ways to Work program. Vouchers and tokens provided by other agencies are meant for emergency use only.
Medical and dental care
In "A survival guide for the uninsured," I list a variety of organizations and agencies that provide medical and dental care to the poor, including:
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Insure Kids Now, which helps families making up to $34,100 a year to get health insurance for their children.
The Health Resources and Services Administration, which can help you find federally funded, low-cost clinics.
State health departments that provide additional clinics and resources.
The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which can help women find low-cost mammograms and Pap smears.
NeedyMeds and the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which can help people without insurance get low-costs meds.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health, can help you find low-cost dental care.
Other resources to consider include:
The UnitedHealthcare Children's Foundation, which helps pay for medically necessary treatments or services not fully covered by insurance.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which provides free pharmacy services to the poor.
Bottom line: Being uninsured increases your risk of dying prematurely and can affect your ability to earn a living. Take the help that's offered
Sometimes what you need isn't food, shelter or medical care but cold, hard cash. Many states have Assistance for Needy Families programs that provide cash assistance.
In addition, Modest Needs is an online grant program designed to keep otherwise self-sufficient families from falling into poverty because of relatively small financial setbacks. The grants do not have to be repaid, although many people who have received grants later make donations to the nonprofit organization. The most you can request is $1,000 or the amount of your monthly rent or mortgage payment.
Bottom line: Sometimes a little bit of cash can go a long way toward solving your problems. If you're flat broke and qualify, accept the help.