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Income inequality is a real thing. Let's start there.

How to Start at Rock Bottom

Income inequality is a real thing. Let’s start there. We are not all starting on a level playing field. In fact, some are actually starting at rock bottom.

Whatever way you define rock bottom, it’s a shitty place to start when envisioning your financial future. And it’s a frightening reality for many Americans. Giving advice about how my fellow college-educated Millennials can get ahead in their careers, defeat their student loans, and buy homes is all well and good, but it’s utterly useless advice for someone with no education, no family support, and no job prospects to speak of. It’s useless to those drowning in medical debt or responsible for supporting a family on a minimum wage salary. You can’t think about Step 1 when you’re currently at Step -37. Those living at rock bottom need to achieve a basic standard of survival before they can think about “getting ahead.”

One way to start at rock bottom—to survive—is by using a number of government social welfare programs. The purpose of these programs is to help those starting at rock bottom, or who find themselves at rock bottom due to drastic circumstances, to get back on their feet and working toward financial stability.

 And the programs work. Take, for example, Senator Barbara Buono of New Jersey, who famously said of her experience on social welfare, “I relied on the social safety net, I relied on food stamps. So don’t tell me that the social safety net drags people down. It lifts them up.”

There is a deep-seated stigma against those who survive on welfare in this country. That’s the blustering, hyperbolic elephant in the room during any discussion about public assistance. Maybe it’s because of our red-blooded American pride in the American Dream and long tradition of bootstrapping. But then again, maybe it’s due to a lengthy campaign of misinformation about welfare recipients that paints them as a bunch of lazy welfare queens mooching off hard-working taxpayers.

Let’s dispense with the bullshit: some people need help. And I am not here to judge them for it. Full stop.

This article might not be for you. And that’s fine. My goal here is to outline some of the many government welfare services designed to “give you a hand up, not a hand out,” as the unnecessarily political rhetoric goes. Because some people need that hand up, even if you do not. Over 67 million Americans receive government welfare assistance at the time I’m writing this.

So without further ado, here is a partial list of the kind of hand-ups that help millions of low-income Americans stay afloat or get back on their feet every year. I’ve provided links to government websites where you can either learn more or apply if you’re eligible.

Government welfare programs

Unemployment insurance benefits: A monthly stipend from the state for people who have become unemployed through no fault of their own. The program is largely funded by payroll taxes.

Women, Infants and Children (WIC): A program targeting low-income, nutritionally at risk children under the age of five, their mothers, and pregnant women. It provides supplemental nutritious foods, nutrition education and counseling, and screening and referrals to other health, welfare, and social services.

Food Stamps/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Self-described as “the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net,” SNAP works with state agencies and local organizations to provide subsidized groceries for low-income and unemployed individuals.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): A program designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency. Full disclosure, they openly push an agenda of “reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies” and “encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families,” which while not horrible, seems a little unsympathetic to the needs of differently structured families.

Income Based Repayment of student loans (IBR): A federal program that allows students to repay their federal student loans at an affordable rate based on their personal income level. Especially helpful if you’re having a hard time finding full-time employment above the minimum wage after graduating.

Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)/Basic Health Program (BHP): These federally subsidized programs provides health coverage to low-income people. All told, they pay for more health care than any other payer in the country.

Planned Parenthood/Subsidized healthcare clinics: Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit that provides reproductive health services, sexual education, referrals for other forms of healthcare, and advocates for reproductive rights. PP was my primary healthcare provider for four years, and during that time they never charged me more than what I could easily afford on the wages of a part-time nanny and student.

Section 8 Housing/Housing Choice Vouchers: This is the government’s program for assisting very low-income people to afford “decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.” Essentially, landlords who participate in the program are paid directly by public housing agencies on behalf of their low-income renters, and the renter pays the difference between the actual rent and the amount subsidized by the public housing agency.

Public housing: Low-cost housing owned by the federal or local government. Renters pay affordable rent in full directly to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s local housing agency, rather than to a landlord who independently owns the property.

Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): A program that helps low-income families and individuals who pay a high proportion of their income for home energy (heating, cooling, electricity). In other words, if you’re having trouble affording to stay warm during the winter months, you might qualify. It distributes block grants to states that in turn pass the assistance on to households in the state.

Lifeline (Obama Phone): A program that provides a monthly phone or broadband subsidy to low-income individuals. If you’re unemployed, you’ll have a hard time getting job offers if potential employers can’t reach you by phone.

Transferring the balance on a credit card: Not a government agency, just a tactic that is completely legal in the United States. 42% of bankruptcies in the United States occur because of medical bills. Some of those medically bankrupted people use credit cards to pay for their medical bills, keep the lights on, and keep food on the table. They can lessen the damage by a) calling their credit card company to request a lower interest rate on an enormous outstanding balance, or b) transferring their existing balance to a credit card with a lower interest rate. It won’t annihilate the debt, only make the payments easier to handle.

On private charities, religious groups, and nonprofits

Federal and state welfare initiatives like most of those mentioned above are not the only way to get help clawing your way up from rock bottom. All over the country private citizens and organizations are filling in the gaps with charitable giving. But while these groups give me great hope for humanity, all of them are in the precarious position of relying primarily upon donations to fund their good work.

On top of that, some of them come with questionable strings attached. The Salvation Army, for example, has come under fire in recent years for its absolutely appalling behavior toward needy members of the LGBT community. Likewise, some churches who embrace the true Christian message of feeding the hungry and healing the sick may pressure their grateful beneficiaries to convert, or at least abide by church doctrine while receiving aid (though this is fortunately becoming taboo). Yes, a private institution funded through donations can have whatever weird policies it wants toward those it’s helping. But I say that’s in the letter, not the spirit, of the law.

Those caveats aside, I can’t stress enough how important private charities are to helping those at rock bottom. Unlike the government programs, many charities have small regional or local branches truly dedicated to helping their communities. Their volunteers know and care about their neighbors and want to make a difference in their own backyards. You can find these smaller, community based charities through the Better Business Bureau, at Local Independent Charities of America, or by asking your local library.

Larger national charities like the American Red Cross also have local branches and the kind of national recognition and respect that drives donations to keep them well funded and fulfilling their missions. There are good people out there who want to help. So while you should definitely research an organization before reaching out, you have nothing to lose by asking.

Yes, we’re privileged Americans

We Bitches are ‘Muricans who live in ‘Murica. Other countries have staggeringly different approaches to the social safety net for their vulnerable citizens. But for now, I wanted to stick to what was within the realm of my cultural experience.

And this is more on our understanding of that experience:

You should also know that I am an incredibly privileged person in that, with the exception of Planned Parenthood, I have never had to rely on any of the welfare programs or charities listed above for my basic survival. I can’t speak to how user friendly or effective they are—I just know that they exist for the purpose of helping those who are struggling financially, and you should know that too. There’s a strong chance I’ve missed some wonderful programs or charities out there. If so, let me know and we’ll update this article accordingly!

Even if you’re starting at rock bottom, help is out there. And you should absolutely not feel ashamed about asking for it.

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5 thoughts to “How to Start at Rock Bottom”

  1. A good reminder, I think we often forget how we don’t all start equal. I am privileged to be born to a comfortable middle class family in a first world country, would I have been as successful if I wasn’t?

  2. You forgot to mention that if you have any friends, family, relatives who are a bit better off than you (or a lot better off than you), you can ask them for help if you hit rock bottom. In a lot of countries without strong social safety nets (or no social safety nets), that’s what most people try to do as the first thing and then try to find charities.

  3. About income based repayments: those payments can be $0 if you make little enough, and those $0 payments count as paying and not deferment. And if you pay for 20 years… The rest is cleared. My SO is $70k in the hole and given we’re already 4 or 5 years into paying I made him pursue this for confirmation (you dont NEED to do anything I just wanted to be sure) and he got it. My loans and my situation were such that it would be more expensive for me to wait and I’m better paying it off. Him though? We’ll wait it out and that will save a ton.
    People don’t know this and just think about the 10 year public service plan but this is definitely an existing thing nobody tells you about.

  4. Great article! Although, there are some caveats to SNAP and TANF that I’ve found in my personal experience that need to be shared. (I live in Arkansas, so it might work differently in other states.)

    First off, both of these programs go by GROSS income (before taxes are removed), so any income from a job is judged by that amount, not by take home pay. It’s BS, I know, but there it is.

    Second, while they do factor in things like rent/mortgage, health insurance premiums, and basic utilities (water/trash, gas, electricity), they DON’T count other essential things like car payment/insurance (vital for peeps like me who live in a more rural area w/zero public transportation), phone bills (cuz if you’re unemployed, you NEED a phone for potential employers to get in touch with you), and a few other things that I’m forgetting right now. Hey, don’t look at me like that! My memory is worse than Swiss cheese and it’s been several years!

    Third, the income requirements for TANF are much more stringent. ANY income, whether it’s a paycheck, unemployment, or (in my case) child support payments received will be subtracted out of any benefits you get above a certain threshold. (I couldn’t find an online chart for income eligibility for my state [suspicious af, cuz they USED to post income eligibility limits], but I found a neat little graphic that shows even the max benefits for each state is well below the federal poverty line as of 2010, and I doubt it’s changed much if at all since then. In my state (Arkansas), it’s between 10-20% of the poverty line.) So let’s say you’re a single parent of 2 kids. You get $60 a week in child support and $200 a week at your part-time job cuz that’s all you can find, or you lost your other job for whatever reason. But the income requirements are set so damn low that any help you get is laughable…if you’re not denied because you “make too much money” cuz of that $240 a month you get in child support. When you’re not even making enough to keep your family fed, sheltered, and provide for their needs. (Young kids especially grow like weeds, so you have to buy them clothes every time you blink cuz they outgrew everything.)

    Oh, that’s another thing. Neither program takes into consideration the costs of raising kids. Diapers, clothes…even those bare necessities (not counting toys and such) can be costly even if you buy secondhand clothes at yard sales and thrift stores. But even if you’re barely surviving on public assistance, barely keeping your kids fed and the lights on, that’s ALL they consider. (As bad as the military can be to the people who serve [underpaid to the extreme], they at least get a cost of living allowance and clothing allowance for themselves and their families.)

    I’m not trying to discourage anyone from seeking these programs out for help. But in my experience, if you’re working and trying to better yourself but just need a little help, they have a tendency to screw you over. My last dealings with them? I was working full-time at a gas station making $1 more than state minimum wage (was higher than federal at the time), going to community college full time (Pell grant and loans paid for it), and raising 3 kids solo, and paying all our living expenses myself. You know how much they gave me in SNAP? $88. A. MONTH. Bitch, my kids eat like fucking horses! That’s not enough to last a WEEK! Why? Between my job and the child support I received (roughly $200/month at the time), “You make too much.” Whereas a few years before, I lived with my parents, unemployed, paying NO bills, and got $619 A MONTH.

    My living situation is a bit better now (better job, but eyes on an even better one), but I still carry a lot of bitterness towards the system. The way the people I dealt with came across to me, they would only bother to do anything to help me if I lost absolutely EVERYTHING I had. They didn’t care about giving assistance to PREVENT losing everything. Now, it could just be the individuals I dealt with, or my state’s system. But it honestly felt like I was being told, “Oh, you actually have a job? You’re going to school to better yourself so you won’t need government assistance in the future? Welp, fuck you then.” It felt like I was being punished for being a hardworking single parent and trying to climb out of poverty, but just needing a little extra help to do it.

  5. Piggy,
    Appreciate you bringing to light the programs available as a safety net to each of us. You are so right when you say that it’s impossible to think about getting ahead when living at rock bottom!

    Although I want to think my story is like so many others…. maybe it’s not.
    Gosh, when I dropped out of college for love and a child at 20, I was one of many who ended up on welfare. Food stamps, subsidized housing, pell grant, and other programs. The processes were complicated and humiliating to say the least. I felt like shit. I felt like a loser. People were judgmental and hostile to deal with, which may have contributed to the self defeating behavior of so many, but “I” knew there was a bigger plan. I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t rock bottom!

    I scratched and fought my way up. Thank goodness for my mother helping with the baby, but It took 10 yrs to finish my bachelors degree. Working part-time, school part-time, with an eye on a better future and determined to not give up or be defeated……… student loans…credit card debt….blah blah blah.

    Ultimately I finished a bachelors, a masters then a doctorate. I’m nearly out of debt, have a great job that I love and am financially successful (in my mind, anyway). Perhaps the determination comes from the desire to never be reliant on another or never be rock bottom again… but I do know that it’s nearly impossible to understand what the future looks like when you feel like a loser and are barely surviving unless you take a leap of faith.

    Thank you to and Kitty for providing words of wisdom… I’ll pass it along!

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