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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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2 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.

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