For millions of American families, 2020 was a year of economic struggle. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses across the nation last spring, the unemployment rate surged to the highest level seen since the Great Depression. Those who remained on the job weren’t necessarily spared hardship as many had hours reduced, leaving them with less money to pay the bills.
“The American ethic is the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality,” says Rob Fischer, an associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. However, he doesn’t think there should be any stigma attached to using the public safety net.
The government offers assistance to families in many ways, ranging from tax breaks for mortgages to unemployment benefits. Most people wouldn’t turn down these government programs, and Fischer says they shouldn’t feel any different about accepting help for needs such as food and health care.
Major Public Assistance Programs
The government operates a number of public assistance programs, but the following are most likely to be applicable to those facing a temporary economic crisis.
TANF. Standing for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF can take different forms. “It can be cash, and it can provide money for child care and employment training,” says Ruth A. Brandwein, dean and professor emeritus of the School of Social Work at Stony Brook University. States may also designate that TANF funds can be used for other needs such as transportation or state services.
SNAP. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program replaced what was previously known as food stamps. Today, families receive a debit card that can be used to pay for non-prepared foods. “For most people, it lasts maybe three weeks (out of the month), but it’s better than nothing,” Brandwein says.
WIC. Short for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program Women, Infants and Children, the WIC program provides food assistance to low-income pregnant and postpartum women as well as infants and children up to age 5. The program serves more than half the infants born in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Medicaid. For those with low incomes and limited assets, Medicaid provides free health insurance. Many states have expanded Medicaid coverage in recent years, so more people are eligible. “This is no longer something that’s just limited to a narrow handful,” says Harry Nelson, a health care attorney and author of “The United States of Opioids: A Prescription for Liberating a Nation in Pain.” In his home state of California, Nelson estimates that about a third of people are covered by Medicaid.
Program Eligibility Varies by State
Before applying for assistance, people need to understand the eligibility requirements for their state. “Even though Medicaid is a federal program, states are given the opportunity to craft what eligibility looks like,” says James A. Laughman, president of intellectual and developmental disabilities solutions at AmeriHealth Caritas, a Medicaid managed care organization.
In the case of Medicaid, that means states have vastly different income eligibility requirements. For instance, in Louisiana, a family of three would be eligible for Medicaid if their annual income is at or below $29,973.60, which is 138% of the federal poverty limit. In neighboring Texas, that same family couldn’t make more than $3,692.40 each year to qualify for Medicaid. That’s because the state limits coverage for parents to only those earning less than 17% of the federal poverty limit.
Income limits are only one restriction on program eligibility. States may also have asset limits and, in the case of TANF, there is a lifetime cap on the amount of assistance someone can receive. The federal government limits people to 60 months of TANF benefits during the course of their lifetime, but Brandwein says many states have a two- to three-year limit. To receive assistance, programs may also have work requirements that stipulate people be employed or working for a certain number of hours each week.
When to Apply for Assistance
Families should begin preparing for assistance long before they actually need it, says Mit Joyner, president of the National Association of Social Workers. She recommends everyone create a file to store Social Security cards, birth certificates, marriage certificates and copies of bills since all this documentation may be needed during the application process.
Then, people should consider applying as soon as they have trouble paying their obligations. “Don’t wait until you’re down to your last dollar,” she says.
Since some programs have asset limits, Fischer says people will want to decide whether it makes sense to burn through savings in order to become eligible for assistance. It also helps to become familiar with the federal poverty level to gauge your likelihood of being eligible.
If you are eligible for assistance, social workers say there is no shame in accepting help. For those who are hesitant, Joyner recommends what she calls self-talk therapy: “There is a safety net out there, and I have a right to access it.”
Declining to pursue available assistance could lead to other problems. Those under economic stress may become anxious, depressed or turn to substance abuse. What’s more, untreated chronic conditions can lead to complications that strain medical systems and may leave people disabled. “It doesn’t help anyone if people don’t have access to care,” Nelson says.
Where to Find Help
For those who have never applied for public assistance, the process can be overwhelming. Pre-pandemic, people could walk into churches, community nonprofits and government offices to request help in navigating the application process. However, many of those buildings are now closed to the public.
Some communities have 2-1-1 numbers which will connect callers to community agencies such as the United Way, but those without a phone or internet access may have to rely on family or friends for help.
Not everyone will be eligible for public assistance, but there may be other avenues for help through private organizations. “The food banks are doing a really good job,” Joyner says. “Some of them are suspending (eligibility rules) and just giving people a box of food.” Utilities and landlords may also have their own assistance programs, and Joyner recommends people in financial distress call every business that bills them and explain their situation.
Above all, social workers say people shouldn’t feel embarrassed to ask for help during this difficult time. “I bet over the years you’ve spent a lot on taxes, and here’s your chance to get some back,” Laughman says. “It’s not a handout. It’s a hand up.”