Unemployed? Underemployed? Here’s how to get help

For a long time, GRS readers have been requesting a list of resources for low-income families struggling to get by. I haven’t put anything together because I don’t know much about the subject. Fortunately, I know somebody who does. In this article, Donna Freedman lays out the nuts and bolts of finding help when you’re in financial distress.

Plenty of people who once made a good living are joining the ranks of the poor and the working poor. They need help, but they’re not getting it. Some are too proud to ask. Some don’t know what kind of help is available because — you guessed it — they’ve never needed it before. Some are simply overwhelmed or paralyzed with anxiety or shame.

We all want to think that we can take care of ourselves. Pride is a terrific thing to have — until you’re looking at a sick spouse or a utility shutoff notice.

Think about the basics: food, shelter, utilities, and healthcare. If the money you’re bringing isn’t enough, start looking for help. Agencies both public and private can help you feed yourself, make up the rent and keep the lights burning.

A Room of One’s Own

The time to think about housing is not when you’re close to losing it. Get proactive. If you got laid off tomorrow, would unemployment cover the rent? It’s increasingly a landlord’s market — suppose your rent goes up during a seasonal slowdown in your industry?

Make a list of options, such as:

  • Find a cheaper place, or look for co-operative housing.
  • Move in with a family member temporarily.
  • Take in a roommate.
  • Look for a job that will let you live rent-free, such as apartment house manager, live-in nanny, or personal care attendant for a person with a disability.

Federally subsidized housing does exist but it can take many months or even years to get it; in fact, some cities have closed their waiting lists. Sign up, but don’t count on it. That’s not negativity; it’s reality.

Some states have rental assistance programs. Click here to see if there’s one where you live.

Other groups offer it, too: Look in the “community services” pages in the front of the phone book for local and national agencies that offer rent help, as well as groups such as Catholic Charities (you don’t have to be Catholic to apply), the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.

See if your city has a 2-1-1 clearinghouse, which can clue you into rental assistance (and lots of other programs) as well as a list of shelters and/or churches that allow people to spend the night.

If there’s no 2-1-1 (and even if there is) keep looking. Do an online search for regional and national services. You will likely find that some programs are swamped. But even if an agency can’t help you it may be able to refer you to others. Ask, and keep asking.

Couch surfing should be your absolute last resort. Wear out your welcome and you are homeless that night. Do not rely on the kindness of friends, i.e., don’t put them in the position of having to say n0 or to kick you out after a couple of weeks.

Cozy and Connected

If you anticipate trouble making your utility bills, call customer service and be candid about your situation. Say that you will make the biggest payments you can without depriving your family of food.

Contact your state’s Public Utility Commission to find out if there’s a moratorium on winter shut-offs. There may even be special rates for low-income residents, but you’ll never know unless you ask.

Some social service agencies and churches provide short-term utility assistance: Ask and ye may receive. You should also check out the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Talk with a phone company representative about minimal service plans for low-income residents. Click here to see if there are other forms of assistance in your region. One program is Lifeline Across America, which provides either a free cell phone or a special rate on a landline. To learn more, click here.

If you can’t afford Internet service, see if your local library has public-use computers. This is generally limited but might be negotiable; I visited a library where the one-hour daily limit was doubled because no one else wanted computer time.

Laptop owners: Many libraries now offer wifi. So do plenty of coffee shops and restaurants but policies vary, i.e., sometimes non-buying wifi users get asked to leave. Note: Your local McDonald’s may be more tolerant. I’ve used the wifi at Mickey D’s for a couple of hours after tossing my dollar-menu drink cup — for all they knew, I hadn’t bought a thing.

Your Daily Bread

The less you spend on groceries, the easier it is to pay your other bills. Make it your business to locate food banks and soup kitchens in your area — and don’t wait until the cupboards are bare.

Keep these things in mind, too:

    • Call ahead to see what you need in order to apply (e.g., state-issued ID, proof of current residence). Ask if you must bring your children’s birth certificates.
    • An agency may offer toiletries, infant formula, clothing or even pet food. Be upfront about your needs.
    • Some food banks are affiliated with social service agencies that offer other help. A place near me, for example, has a biweekly health-care clinic and job search counseling.
    • You may or may not be given food the day you apply again, don’t wait until the situation is desperate.

Ask if you can volunteer. It can help you feel better about accepting assistance. Besides, once you meet other food-bank clients you’ll realize that it’s not just you who’s having a tough time. Because it isn’t just you: One in eight Americans is food insecure, or lacking access to enough food, according to Feeding America.

To find food banks in your region, click here. Some places let you come by more than once a week, and you may be eligible to visit more than one location. Use them to the fullest in order to create a pantry of nonperishables. That way you’ll always have something to eat, even if a sick child or an ice storm prevents you from getting to the food bank.

Two other food sources are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and the Women Infants Children nutrition program. It can take a long time to get approved, so apply now. Just FYI: The book of coupons you had to tear out, in front of God and everybody, has been replaced by electronic benefit transfer cards. It looks like you’re using a debit card. Nobody has to know.

Here’s a long shot that might pay off for you: The Freecycle Network. I’ve seen things like baby formula, garden produce, tree fruit, cereal, and canned and dry goods up for grabs. If your region has a chapter, sign up.

For the Health of It

You should be proactive about health care, too. Just as you shouldn’t wait for an eviction notice to seek rental assistance, don’t wait until you’re running a 103-degree fever to start looking up Department of Public Health in the phone book. (Assuming you still use a phone book.)

If you have health care coverage and get laid off, you can continue that insurance via COBRA. However, it could be cheaper to pay for private health insurance. Can’t hack either one? See Liz Pulliam Weston’s excellent survival guide for the uninsured.

Or seek out county/state public health and community health centers, which operate on a sliding scale basis. Click here to find the one nearest you. You can be treated for a sudden illness, get well-child care (including immunizations) and have ongoing health conditions such as diabetes or asthma monitored.

Other strategies:

  • Women can get some basic health care as well as gynecological exams at Planned Parenthood. Fees are sliding-scale (which might mean free if you’re really broke). And since you might want to avoid adding to your family right now, ask for free condoms while you’re there. Search for the nearest clinic by clicking here.
  • If you qualify, the Insure Kids Now initiative will help you get health and dental coverage for your young ones. Learn more by clicking here.
  • Uninsured minors can get vision tests and glasses through Sight For Students. The American Academy of Ophthalmology’s EyeCare America offers free care to certain groups, including folks with glaucoma or diabetes.
  • Service clubs: Rotary sponsors health clinics in some areas. Your local Lions Club may offer help with eye exams, glasses or hearing aids.
  • Still got health insurance? Ask your doc for drug samples, whether that’s a short-term antibiotic or a maintenance med. That’s one less prescription you’ll have to buy.
  • Generic meds can cost as little as $10 for a three-month supply at places like Wal-Mart and Target. Some drugs (e.g., prenatal vitamins, certain antibiotics) are actually free at Top Foods, Meijer and Publix.

Asking for cheap or free health care may feel embarrassing to you. You’ve paid taxes to keep these places going, and you’ll pay taxes to keep them going once you’re employed again. Suffering doesn’t do anyone any good, and if you end up hospitalized you’ll cost us all a lot more.

Just Answer the Questions

No matter which aid program you seek, you will be asked about a lot of stuff: marital status, personal assets, number of children, work history. The person doing the asking isn’t picking on you. He’s doing his job. Everyone who applies needs to be vetted.

It might feel like the end of the world to be in this position. Trust me: It isn’t. It’s just a very rough patch. There’s not much you can do about the economy at large. What you can control is your reaction to where you are right now.

If you’ve cut your budget to the bone and still can’t make it, set pride aside for a little while. When things get better you can give back. First, though, you need to survive.

Note: Donna Freedman won the Clarion Award for her work on MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog. She now writes the Living With Less column at MSN Money, and she recently started her own site, Surviving and Thriving. I’ve mentioned her articles many times in the past, and she’s even shared an article at GRS about why she fought to save three bucks. She chronicled her own hard times in a GRS Reader Story.

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There are 54 comments to "Unemployed? Underemployed? Here’s how to get help".

  1. TheOzz says 04 October 2010 at 04:16

    I like to ideas on cutting back as a first step, but didn’t you forget the obvious? How about doing something that you might not have ever considered like take multiple part-time jobs. How about moving to a place where jobs are more readily available. Instead of teaching people how to find and apply for hand-outs we need to be teaching people how to find work. There are jobs out there. They just might not be what people “want” to do or where people “want” to live.

    • dana says 07 May 2015 at 18:52

      Umm you obviously neber had to make decisions on buying milk or shampoo. Or if you work 40 hours a week at min wage, you lose your health insurance. How is moving away the answer? Moving where you OBVIOUSLY have no friends, family or any childcare to work multiple part time jobs. Dont be giving advice to people that you have not a clue as to what choices to make when you clearly are quite clueless and ignorant to the fact of what life is like if you were raised maybe with a single parent that couldnt pay the way to college, or been a day without toliet paper because a single mother bought diapers,for the infant they are raising while working. If you could,do real life math you would discover 40 hours whether in one full time or 40 in two part time….you would be in the red at least 120 dollars, which means you cant afford car insurance or buy a bus pass. Things arent getting better. People who think they know what the so ideal answers are have never had to make life decisions with out a comfy cushion to make it on. Please keep your arrogance and total un educated advice as in ingornat (unknowing) to factual data. No we arent all stupid because we might not have money because we didnt have parents or husbands to cushion lives people get hurt people die people have children and yes poor people deserve human rights to breed and poor usually only have a single child. So stop thinking so high of you and your fortunate life it could all be taken in a days time.

      • Rachel says 02 July 2015 at 11:05

        It is always interesting to me when I hear people give advice on things they have little to no experience with (the Ozz). I can tell by reading the comments from Dana that she is frustrated and irritated with the same thing.
        There is really no good solution to this issue without someone in your life to help you while you struggle to get back to a place where you can support yourself. If you’re not lucky enough to have that cushion – parents, partner, family or friends – good luck! You would be better off living off the government and finding a hustle on the side to come up with the extra money to save, since they don’t allow you to work while they’re helping you. The system is set up to help you just enough to keep you down if you don’t figure out a way to make money and not report it so you can get out of this cycle. There is no way to get ahead honestly with these government programs. They are so helpful to have, but the point is to get off them and go back to a normal life. People who have never been faced with these realities will never really understand. “Tough love” is a joke. It’s just a term people use to feel better about themselves while they humiliate and deny people help they could absolutely afford. I believe it’s a cop-out and very lame.

  2. Nicole says 04 October 2010 at 05:06

    As always, great post Donna!

  3. Sam says 04 October 2010 at 05:06

    This looks like a well done list of resources and I’m glad to see it here.

    The charity I’m involved with, a non-profit pre-school for working poor put on a recent health and resource fair for our families and the community. It was amazing to see the variety of service providers. We have providers who did health checks, immunizations, hearing and vision checks and referrals for those that need services, food pantry, housing assistance, legal aid, etc.

    United Way can be a great starting point since they can put you in touch with a specific charity that can help in a specific area.

    I would also add that the process of applying for aid, filling out forms, following up, etc. can be daunting, at the charity I’m invovled with, one of our employees does this full time for our families, but keep at it. You may feel ashamed in taking public service or charity but just think of the years you paid taxes into the sytem to support these services or when it comes to charity commit to giving of your time or money when you can.

  4. Janette says 04 October 2010 at 05:55

    Sam hit on something that is important.

    Make sure to ask the kids’ nurse. Our school system does a food backpack put together by local small charities who do not otherwise have a presence. The kids take home a regular looking backpack filled with food. We also discretely ask when doing a food drive if someone needs food at their house to quietly ask a teacher. Food, at times, goes home with the kid instead of to the bank.

    Many states have further assistance for homeless children- including taxi service from a “friend’s” house where that child might be staying. Free lunch is not just for the really poor. It is based on your tax level- so easier for business people who are struggling to get on to. Arizona has many schools on “free dinner” as well.

    If you are uncomfortable with food kitchens- bring your family and volunteer. You will serve dinner and then eat. You will also, often, walk away with food that is left over!

    Don’t let the aide people intimidate you. We pay taxes to help you out. I, personally, would like to see you get the help.

  5. Pamela says 04 October 2010 at 06:31

    Great suggestions, Donna. It’s amazing how many services are available.

    Just one note to the readers–if you don’t need these resources, consider giving to your local nonprofits. Organizations are at their limits, facing cuts, and there is no end of needy people.

  6. lostAnnfound says 04 October 2010 at 06:40


    Too bad there are not more like you who want to help. My husband lost his job the beginning of April, so we applied for Mass Health for medical insurance for our family. He got a denial because we made too much money to qualify. Then he lost his unemployment benefits. Should we reapply or ask for a change in the application already filed? I called the main office in Boston. After half a dozen times of the calling going to voicemail someone actually picked up, told me to hold on, and then proceeded to yell to someone else in the office, “No, I’m not covering the phones. I don’t know who is supposed to be doing the phones.” Then she said “yeah, what do you need?” to me. She wasn’t sure what we should do, but told use to go ahead and file a new application (12 pages, mind you), which we did and which has been sent back to us as being already filed and denied.

    Her attitude felt like she could not care less about my questions and she said whatever she needed to just to get me off the phone. It is difficult to get anyone on the phone to give us a straight answer. It is hard enough having to figure out what the system needs/wants from us (I have never seen so much paperwork in my life) without having to feel like we’re not worth someone’s effort to pick up the phone and talk to me and answer a couple of questions.

  7. Everyday Tips says 04 October 2010 at 07:21

    Great ideas, and I hope people that need the help read this article.

    A friend of mine lost her job and ended up going on food stamps. She then magically ended up getting free lunch for her kids at school. Somehow, the food stamp people talked to the school, and lunch was just free. What a huge help to my friend, but because she had never been in economic straits before, she didn’t even know she qualified for the lunch program.

    As you said, this is good info for anyone. Even if you aren’t in need of help yourself, you can share your knowledge with those in need!

  8. Bella says 04 October 2010 at 08:53

    great timely post!

  9. Donna Freedman says 04 October 2010 at 09:00

    @TheOzz: Finding “multiple part-time jobs” is not as easy as you make it sound. Some people can’t find even ONE part-time job.
    “There are jobs out there,” you write. Maybe where you live that’s the case. But it’s not true everywhere. Besides, the “help wanted” signs you see are sometimes for 20 hours a week at minimum wage. Many people can’t afford to trade an unemployment check for $100 a week after taxes.
    As for “moving to a place where jobs are more readily available,” it’s not always that simple. Where, exactly, are jobs more readily available? In which parts of the country are employers fighting for the chance to give jobs to the populace? If such a place existed, wouldn’t people be heading there already?
    Or suppose one spouse is employed and one isn’t. It makes no sense to quit a job and move to where the pastures are allegedly greener.
    If the unemployed person is to move somewhere to get a job, how can he afford to do that? It costs money to move even a single person (bus/train/plane fare, money to rent a room or an apartment, maybe a first month’s rent and a utilities deposit). Heck, it costs $55 in application fees to move into the building in which I live, and another $500 in security deposit if you’re approved — and it’s not even in a particularly nice section of the city.
    Or suppose that unemployed spouse is the one watching the kids so the other can go to work? Child care may be out of the question if there’s only one salary. Whoever’s not working can’t afford to pull up stakes and move.
    Maybe family members/friends are watching the kids so the unemployed person can look for a job. Suppose the unemployed person is a single parent whose family/friends make it possible to work at all, even for a small salary? Moving to a new place with no one support network is a terrible idea — if your kid gets sick and you have to take too much time off to be home with him, you may get fired.
    I think you’ve bought into the attitude that if someone is unemployed it’s ALWAYS his fault. Naturally some people are fired for cause, and of course some people would rather collect unemployment than work. But the woods — and the soup kitchens — are full of people who are begging for jobs.
    Apparently you’re fortunate enough not to be in that position. But that could change. If it does, remember your own blithe advice along the lines of “just go get another job.” Here’s hoping it’s possible.

    • ric says 04 September 2013 at 23:48

      Donna has well said this. We are continually going thru same thing, and have used up all our resources. and their is no part time work here. Have tried, at so many jobs, past 2 years. no results! May because of my age, over 57. who knows.

    • Frank says 22 May 2014 at 04:08

      Well said Donna.
      Moving away from a place your are familiar with, and friends and family, even if it were easy to do does not guarantee a secure job and only serves to socially isolate people.
      Have you ever moved interstate with a family to a new city, no friends or support and on a limited budget. It is damn hard and I would not advise it for a family who are already struggling financially and emotionally.

  10. SF_UK says 04 October 2010 at 09:06

    If you have ever been to university, been in a union or professional association, or your parents or children have, see if they have benevolent associations or similar. Often these are undersubscribed, as they are funded through dues, but are not usually well advertised. Take “professional association” with its widest possible meaning (e.g. the church is you or someone in your family is/was a minister)

  11. Monroe on a Budget says 04 October 2010 at 09:24

    Donna already gave an excellent answer to the “just move” advice.

    Now to add more info … ask your librarian if there are any community web sites that list free and low-cost resources and assistance agencies. If there is one, the librarians are probably aware of it.

    It might be the United Way, it might be Area Office on Aging, it might be the library itself, might be the TV station or newspaper, might even be a freelancer. It all depends on who took on that effort in your town to build such a database and maintain it.

    For those who are in Detroit / Ann Arbor / southeast Michigan area I recommend Julie’s List as a community reference / referral site. http://julieslist.homestead.com/

  12. TheOzz says 04 October 2010 at 10:30


    My point is that this is written from a perspective of all hope being lost and no encouragement to continue to look for work.

  13. Tyler Karaszewski says 04 October 2010 at 10:43

    The article’s not written from the perspective of all hope being lost — it’s simply focusing on how to take advantage of certain types of help. If the article was about “how to find fresh water when lost in the woods,” that doesn’t imply that once you start looking for fresh water you’ve given all hope of ever being found. It’s just trying to help you not die from dehydration until you can get out of the woods.

    Besides, we’ve all heard “take a second job” or “find a job” a hundred million times by now. This information is something new. And like others have said, “finding a job” is often easier said than done.

  14. Anne says 04 October 2010 at 10:52

    I’d add, don’t be afraid of religious organizations. There isn’t a quiz and they’re not going to ask you to produce a baptism certificate. And if there is a quiz or they do grill you… run away.

    I’m an atheist and I’ve worked with several organizations and continue to donate to one in particular that is an umbrella organization for all of the houses of worship in town. Much as I think it would be spiffy if there was a food bank run by secular humanists, the fact is that the churches and synagogues have great resources and a built-in community of people who are willing to help. Don’t be afraid to call on those resources, even if you aren’t religious.

  15. Adrian says 04 October 2010 at 10:53

    This was truly an invaluable list of resources for those in need.

    Speaking from personal experience, I am very much aware of how “pride” can become a roadblock on the path to prosperity because as a nation, we are generally taught to be “strong, independent & free” since we were young, but let’s face it: at times when the poop hits the fan, all of the pride, independence & freedom in the world cannot feed a hungry mouth.

    What I love about Donna’s posts (for those of you that are unfamiliar with the author) is that she speaks passionately from personal experience — this isn’t your average PF writer giving you advice from the sidelines — so there is an entrenched sense of trust in the information she provides alongside plenty of “tried and true” methods which Donna herself has utilized and succeeded with.

    Thank you very much for your insightful and fruitful article, Donna. I look forward to more guest posts from you here at GRS. 🙂

  16. Nick says 04 October 2010 at 10:59

    right on time with this post!

  17. Peggy says 04 October 2010 at 11:16

    For those who already have a baby on the way, I wrote a book that might be helpful: The Naturally Frugal Baby, available as a free download (or printed copy at cost plus shipping) at lulu.com.

  18. susanin says 04 October 2010 at 11:33

    Here are a couple other ideas.
    1) Places like labor-ready hire day-labor on a first-come, first-serve basis. Yes it may be minimum wage cleaning stables, but its income.

    2) dumpster diving (though not for the faint of heart) is a viable way to score some decent food.

    3) read “Steal This Book” though it may be dated, some stuff never changes

    4) Look for the job, don’t wait for the job to come to you. Get proactive and creative about applying to jobs. Don’t limit yourself to jobs you want.

  19. Shauna says 04 October 2010 at 12:05

    @Susanin, I have to wonder how you define “decent food.”

    I don’t personally want to live in a society where we recommend “dumpster diving” to people who have fallen on hard times and don’t have enough money for food. Yes, that may be an option, but why in the world would we aspire to that? Have we sunk that low?

  20. chacha1 says 04 October 2010 at 12:33

    Shauna, I don’t think anyone “aspires” to dumpster-diving. But a lot of food is discarded by grocers and restaurants for nothing but aesthetic flaws, and a lot more untouched food is discarded because it was a side dish on a plate. If I were broke to the point of needing a food bank, you’d better believe I’d be haunting the alleys behind thriving restaurants.

    It’s not about being “low.” It’s about being practical.

  21. Lisa says 04 October 2010 at 12:58

    The other much-overlooked resource for people who can’t afford their utility bills is the low-income weatherization assistance program.

    If you own your house (or have a landlord who will sign a form), a County/City agency will come to your house and add insulation, do caulking, etc. to your home which will lower your utility bills by about 30%.

    They have raised the eligibility rate so that you are eligible if your household makes 200% of poverty level income (which means many people qualify who don’t think they do).

    Look here:
    http://www1.eere.energy.gov/wip/wap.html or google ‘Weatherization Assistance Program’ followed by your County or city name.

  22. Jennifer says 04 October 2010 at 13:26


    Thank you very much for putting together such an informative list. It is very unfortunate that the people your article was addressed to ~

    “Plenty of people who once made a good living are joining the ranks of the poor and the working poor. They need help, but they’re not getting it. Some are too proud to ask. Some don’t know what kind of help is available because – you guessed it – they’ve never needed it before”

    are automatically lumped into a category of people who have NEVER worked and KNOW where to get the handouts because they always have by the likes of TheOzz and others who think like him. One would think that a person who purports to be a Christian would have a different attitude, but unfortunately that is not the case.

    Thanks again for a superb list with working links to very timely information and resources. Kudos to you.

  23. Sarah says 04 October 2010 at 13:46

    I work for United Way in my city and help raise awareness of the 211 information & referral service. You recommended 211 and thank you for that! If people don’t know how to find out if they have 211 in their area, all they have to do is dial 3 digits, 211. If there is no service in the area, a recording should come on. If there is a service, they’ll be connected to the one serving the area code they’re calling from.

    211 is where to call when you don’t know where to call, and the database includes all kinds of services and programs: government, nonprofits, and some for-profits with sliding fee scales.

    Thank you for this helpful and encouraging post! I’ve clicked through all the links and have found websites I didn’t know about that I can put to immediate use.

  24. Briana @ GBR says 04 October 2010 at 14:53

    Donna, these were great resources. Most people don’t even know this much help (and options) are available. I wish the media would advertise these programs more, especially in the condition our economy is in.

  25. InsuranceHelp says 04 October 2010 at 18:37

    to #6 lostannfound:

    You should call a Mass Health Enrollment Center (1-888-665-9993) not the customer service number (1-800-841-2900). The 866 # should direct you to the service center for your area based on the area code you dial from (Revere, Taunton, Tewksbury). I believe you have 30 days to appeal a denial…there should be space to appeal included at the end of your denial letter. If you still have problems, call the board of hearings directly 1-800-655-0338 or 617-210-5800.

    If you need help accessing insurance outside of that, try Health Law Advocates http://www.healthlawadvocates.org/

    My job is to know what kind of resources are available to help people who fall on hard times. You’d be surprised how many working people fall ill or get in an accident that prevents them from working, subsequently leaving them to rely on social service agencies, private or public, to get by. I am familiar with many of the suggestions in this article but it’s nice to have them listed in on place

  26. BD says 04 October 2010 at 19:06

    Good post, Donna. Thank you.
    Another good program for cheap food is http://www.angelfoodministries.com/

    You get big boxes of food for really cheap. It’s not always the highest-quality, but it’s cheap! 🙂

  27. karla says 04 October 2010 at 21:41

    As someone who has received assistance in the past, thank you for this list. I had a job, but we still qualified for the weatherization program and WIC. It got us through a very rough financial place.

    By the way, I think there are still jobs to be had in North Dakota (a friend and I were talking about it just recently)

    As someone who used to live there (and that’s where I got the assistance) I can well understand why people would be reluctant to move there: winter (and summer, but not so much) I have a lot of respect for people who call that place home; it’s not easy to live there.

  28. El Nerdo says 04 October 2010 at 21:58

    Excellent article and full of information, but I have one minor disagreement; the food section prioritizes food banks and soup kitchens and only talks about food stamps as an afterthought. I’d reverse the priorities there.

    First of all, food banks are charities, they may give you a box of food per month, but where do you eat the other 29 days? Also they don’t offer consistent quality of food, you’ll get a random box of suspicious leftovers, a bunch of salty canned foods, things that you might be allergic to, and yes it might keep you alive to fight another day, but I’d hit the food stamp office first.

    Why? Food stamps (now “EBT cards” http://www.gettingfoodstamps.org/ebtcard.htm ) is your own taxes at work– you’ve paid into the system, now you can benefit from it in a time of need. No “charity” involved. Takes about a week to get you approved, you get a fixed sum every month, and you get to buy whatever food you want with it, not mystery stew from who knows where. Of course hit the bulk bins first. The cards are run through JP Morgan-Chase and operate through the same checkout device as your debit card.

    Get your EBT card first and keep the hobo meals at the Salvation Army as the very last resort. Here are the eligibility requirements: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/eligibility.htm

  29. Donna Freedman says 05 October 2010 at 09:25

    @El Nerdo Loco: First, I don’t like your characterization of “hobo meals.” That guy you call a hobo is a human being. You don’t know his story — and even if you did, you shouldn’t judge.
    You’ll note that I *did* include the link to food stamps/SNAP in the piece. However, it isn’t always as easy as you say to qualify. A friend of mine with three kids and no job went in for help and it took several weeks for her to be approved. (And she was approved for surprisingly little.)
    In the week or weeks while you wait for SNAP, you still have to eat — and often, SNAP just isn’t enough if food prices are high and if your three growing kids are eating a lot. A food bank/soup kitchen helps you fill in the gaps and maybe even build a tiny pantry. (Note, too, that food banks may allow you to visit once a week or even more often, rather than once a month.)
    Incidentally, “charity” is not a dirty word. If you’re lucky, you’ll never need to ask for it. If you’re not lucky, you may wind up being grateful that charity exists. In the meantime, try a little compassion for those who are in tough places right now.

  30. El Nerdo says 05 October 2010 at 12:14

    @ Donna: I’ve needed to ask for it, so I know what I’m talking about. I got bags that looked like someone had puked in them, and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to eat them. We also got cans that had enough sodium in them to give a person serious blood pressure problems (compound that with lack of health insurance and it’s a prescription for a swift death).

    Charities are unreliable and not a solid way to support yourself, a lot of throwaway food and random food that has little or dubious nutritional value. In spite of all noble intentions, they are no cure for social ills.

    About SNAP eligibility and funds: I have a friend who got dirt poor and wouldn’t qualify for food stamps because she had a savings account that her bank required for her to keep a credit card. Skewed priorities! I told her to eat the savings, apply for food stamps– but no, oh, the credit card must be protected at all costs! Still, I know another person who gets $120 a month in New Mexico– enough for rice, beans, greens, cornmeal, oats, eggs, and fruits in season. You gotta shop smart and your money goes a long way– if you wanna buy fruit loops and soda and hot pockets the money will evaporate and you’ll suffer malnutrition.

    Republicans scream for lower taxes and say that “charity” should take care of the poor, but I’ve been the recipient of “charity” and in spite of all good and noble intentions that’s no reliable way to keep living while you get out of trouble. Vote in November and keep the teabaggers out of Congress.

    So yes, I’m one of those “progressives” who doesn’t mind more taxes and more social protections, like in civilized countries where you don’t have to beg at the church when you’re out of work. EBT is the way to go, it got me out of a tough spot when I needed help; government should be the first line of defense, & I’d encourage everyone to make it their first priority –and vote in November to keep a social safety network that doesn’t depend on corporations getting tax breaks when they dump a bad batch of product on the needy.

    • debe says 29 October 2015 at 16:53

      el nerdo- there are many folks needing food stamps (ebt) that CANNOT receive food stamps! Those folks include myself and many others! For instance, IF you are collecting unemployment of 340.00 a wk ( after taxes) you are considered to be over the eligible “limits” to receive EBT. So yes, EBT is great for those that have NO or lower unemployment benefits-..thank god for that!! Doesn’t sound as though you’ve ever really experienced the variances. Please-No Need to ever reply to me on this topic.

  31. Kelly says 05 October 2010 at 12:40

    I am one of the ones who once made an okay living and for the first time am unemployed and broke. I appreciate the information since this is all a new experience for me. I just wanted to share one thing.

    If you suddenly find yourself unemployed and qualify for unemployment you are eligible for a federal student loan deferment. All I had to do was send them a copy of my unemployment determination. Now I have six months in which my student loans won’t require payments. Interest does not accrue either! Yay!

  32. partgypsy says 05 October 2010 at 13:55

    Thanks for mentioning Planned Parenthood for providing access to reproductive health services for all women, regardless of income. A reason I’m proud to support them.

  33. NOGoddess says 05 October 2010 at 14:21

    There’s a great organization, Modest Needs (http://www.modestneeds.org) that helps people with smaller, one-time emergency grants to cover unexpected expenses that might adversely affect their financial position.

    “Modest Needs’ grant programs are designed PRIMARILY to assist individuals and families who generally are able to pay their monthly bills with no help from anyone, who don’t qualify for conventional types of social or charitable assistance, and who are facing a financial crisis because they’ve encountered a single, unexpected expense they just can’t afford on their own.

    Of course, we also offer grants that are designed to assist people who are in the process of returning to work, persons who need help to afford accessibility equipment, and small non-profit organizations. But, in general, Modest Needs just does not have the resources to assist individuals or families who are homeless, have no regular income of their own, or need / receive ongoing help to afford the basics.”

    They also have a helpful database of other sources of assistance:

    And if you don’t need assistance, consider them a worthy organization to donate money to – aside from general donations, you can go through their database of requests and help fund specific requests if you want to know exactly who your money is going to help.

    Also, if you are on foodstamps, check your local farmers’ markets – they may be part of a program that doubles the value of foodstamps used at the markets – our local farmers’ markets double the value up to $25… $50 worth of produce at the farmers’ market goes a long way and keeps you eating local and healthy!

    If you grow food on any level, google “plant a row for the hungry” – Second Harvesters food bank is one place that deals with this type of program where you can grow some extra food to contribute to those in need in your community. There are also some seed distributors that will send you some free seeds to plant for this program.

    Growing a garden is also a great way to supplement food needs, some online research may lead you to resources in your community that give away free seeds and offer classes/assistance as far as starting your own garden and/or a community garden.

    Hope these resources and ideas help some folks!

  34. Natalia says 05 October 2010 at 14:24

    Great Post! I agree with El Nerdo Loco – Apply for Food Stamps, Medicaid first. #1 priority is to keep yourself healthy and well-fed.

    As far as COBRA, it is often too expensive to maintain, especially when you have children. My COBRA was $1200 per month, so I had to get my son signed up for Medicaid, and drop my coverage.

    Utilities come next,(water and lights) nix the internet (go to your local library, or access internet at a friend/neighbors).

    Get really familiar with your local library. Read books that interest you, check out free DVD’s, and use their resources for resume writing, e-mail, etc.

    Also get in touch with your local Workforce Commission. There are some programs, such as WIA (Workforce Investment Act) that will retrain you for a new career. Most Impportant, make sure your friends, family, and church are aware of your situation. They are your most important supporters/allies. Stay encouraged.

    I was unemployed for 8 months, and my son and I lived VERY simply, and we made it.

    ****I also just found about this mortgage assistance program today as well. No interest loans from the Government up to $50K, and forgiven if you live in your house a certain number of years.*******


  35. Donna Freedman says 05 October 2010 at 14:24

    @El Nerdo Loco: I’m a progressive myself. I believe in compassion.
    And I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with the food bank, but please don’t discourage folks from checking out the food pantries in their own neighborhoods. The fact is that food banks and soup kitchens are the ONLY alternative for some folks, such as the ones who are just over the eligibility level for food stamp benefits.
    I’m with you on the elections. Just can’t believe the hatefulness some of the candidates are spewing.
    And a shout-out to all readers: If times are good for you, please donate to your local food pantry. Don’t know where it is? Use the link in the article to find it, or send the money to Feeding America. Even $5 can make a big, big difference.

  36. El Nerdo says 05 October 2010 at 14:52

    @ Donna–I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to come across as someone lacking compassion, although perhaps I got fired up because in America we have this notion that government should get out of everyone’s lives and that “charity” will solve all social problems, when it’s clearly not the case, having been in the receiving end of charity and seeing how it comes up way short of anything. But yes, the food pantry will keep you going along for another day.

    I love the social role of government. After the Bush recession killed my business and my wife’s job was cut in half, my government gave us dignified food assistance, the IRS lady put us on hardship so w wouldn’t have to pay taxes, and thanks to some government grants I’m able to get decent health-care in a low-income clinic (my wife gets free health care as a compensation for the near-extermination of her people–not sure it adds up). All throughout this, we didn’t have to pray to some invisible man in the sky. That’s the way to keep people going with dignity so that they can join the workforce again.

    Of course I encourage people to seek food wherever they can: pantries, charities, inviting themselves to people’s houses, public events, food tastings at the supermarket, hunting and fishing, whatever, but my point (perhaps stated too dramatically) was that in times of need, the first line of battle should be to getback some of the taxes you’ve paid all your life– in the form of unemployment, SNAP, WIC, Section 8 housing, tax relief, etc. And of course, don’t wait until it’s too late, *and don’t let the wingnuts take it away from you*.

  37. Donna Freedman says 05 October 2010 at 15:09

    @El Nerdo Loco: I’m in agreement with you on all of that. Section 8 is a tough nut to crack, though, since some cities have stopped even taking applications due to the length of the waiting lists.
    Re the religion aspect: Agencies like Catholic Social Services and many individual churches will help you regardless of whether or not you espouse a particular belief. Don’t write them off automatically, folks.
    My own church, the UCC (same as President Obama’s) gives out rent and utility assistance, maintains a food pantry, participates in a homeless teens feed, supports the impoverished elderly and people living with HIV, and runs a preschool and child care center with a sliding scale fee (the poorer working parents pay nothing). No one is asked which church, if any, he attends; help is given because giving help is the right thing to do.
    Thanks to all who have contributed additional tips. If you know someone who’s facing hard times, please forward the URL of this piece — but stipulate that the comments should be read carefully, too.

  38. Jaime says 05 October 2010 at 15:37

    This is a great article and so nice to have so many resources listed in one spot.

    The only addition I can add is on the least important of your points – free wifi. If you have a laptop and need to get online outside of your library’s hours (for example, my closest location is closed on Sundays and doesn’t open until 10am on weekdays) – park in the parking lot as close to the building as you can and see if their wifi reaches your car. My local branch’s wifi is left on all the time and covers their small parking lot. If you’re job hunting and sending resumes or need to check your email for interviews, it can really help to not be dependent on their hours.

    It’s worth the minute it would take to find out if you’re in need of internet access.

  39. Victoria says 05 October 2010 at 16:28

    I just want to chime in about food stamps (or SNAP). I think it is a really helpful program if you’re struggling. Last year, I qualified for the program (though I now have a job that pays me well and made it possible to stop participating in SNAP). I know some friends who applied for food stamps and were given their SNAP card that same day. Unfortunately, my application fell into some strange blackhole and, after waiting 2 months, I was approved for benefits. If you’re having trouble making ends meet, please apply early and go in person to your Department of Social Services office (although there is the option to apply online, most offices aren’t really prepared to handle that).

  40. JuliB says 05 October 2010 at 18:11

    Well, I’m a conservative and ‘compassionate’ too. Compassion doesn’t inhabit one spot on the political spectrum.

    I was going to put in a plug for ModestNeeds.org but I guess I was too late. I donate a modest amount to them, and since donating to many causes of utility bill problems, I started adding the monthly donation to my electric and gas bills.

    As a Catholic, I would like to put in a plug for the St. Vincent DePaul Society. We’re in nearly every parish and typically run an unadvertised food pantry and can sometimes assist with other monetary needs.

    Your best best is to contact your local Catholic church to see if they have any assistance available. The resale stores provide the parish level groups with money to fund parish activities (for the most part – we do not take any money from the stores). If you do not live in the geographical boundary of the church you contacted, they may refer you to a different one.

    Typically, someone from SVdP (a regular volunteer from the parish) will contact you about your needs. We may do a home visit to assess your needs, so we’d need info like income, outstanding bills, etc.

    If a decision is made to help, we would send a check directly to the place we’d be paying (e.g., water company). We’ve also met people at the gas station if we decide to fill up the tank. All decisions are made at the lowest level, and there are typically yearly monetary caps on cash assistance.

    At my parish, we have gift certificates to a good grocery store in order to allow a person to buy perishables.

    Our food pantry: This week I was on my own for the first time doing the food put-away from the monthly food collection. I was very impressed. People donated everything from healthy cereal (and sugary stuff too – no food moralizing here!) to gluten free food to cake mix. Brand name cans of soup and veggies abounded. We had canned salmon, potato chips, personal hygiene items, Kraft Mac and Cheese, bags of sugar, pork and beans, etc., etc. I would happily eat from our pantry.

    How it works – once a month (I think) you can come in and ‘shop’ Typically someone is allowed 2 bags of food (possibly more depending on family size and ages). You will certainly leave with more than a meal’s worth of food. Periodically we donate our stash to the mission in the city so our food doesn’t age.

  41. BD says 05 October 2010 at 22:12

    This was a good thread til certain folks had to bring Republican-bashing and name-calling into it (El Nerdo Loco, not cool).

  42. Practical Parsimony says 05 October 2010 at 22:25

    United Way in this town will give a gas voucher to anyone traveling more than 10 miles to a doctor’s appointment. You will need an appointment card. Also, they will accept a fax from the doctor’s office as proof. They also help with meds once a year by calling a pharmacy and sending the person to the pharmacy with the prescription.

  43. El Nerdo says 05 October 2010 at 22:49

    @BD – The teabaggers and their billionaire masters the Koch brothers would have the unemployed living in Hoovervilles and eating dirt if they had their way. I’m calling it like I see it, not trying to “be cool” to gain the approval of internet strangers.

  44. The Prudent Homemaker says 06 October 2010 at 10:20

    We went 8 months with no income in 2007, and we’ve been underemployed ever since; in fact, this year we’ve made half of what we made during those 4 months of income in in 2007 (for this entire year).

    You’ve put together a great list.

    We’ve found some other ways to fill our pantry without shopping. We regularly eat for $1-$3 a meal for my family of 8. It can be done. It can be tasty, and it can even be good for you!

    My site is a resource for those who are struggling to put food on the table. I’ve also got ideas for making clothes over, gifts, and more. Come visit!

  45. BD says 07 October 2010 at 06:19

    @El Nerdo – Your view is pretty closed-minded, incorrect, a blanket-statement and very close to being bigoted. You’re saying an entire large group of people wants the unemployed living in a shanty-town and starving. That’s not even a sensible or rational statement, it’s just hate-mongering, speculating and bigoted name-calling.

    The Tea Party (which doesn’t have any ‘master’) wants the government to quit over-imposing on the people so that free markets will work, so employment will come back for everyone and people will be more prosperous and be able to Get Rich Slowly. This is hardly in line with your thinking that they want everyone poor.
    Take an economics class, this is basic first-year college Microeconomics.

  46. RB says 09 October 2010 at 12:20


    If you are renting, you need to start preparing now for the rent shocks coming down the road.

    Rents will soar before you expect it; not tomorrow but probably in the next two or three years.

    Apartment construction collapsed a few years ago and remains in the tank, so there will be very little new construction coming through the pipeline for a number of years.

    Ironically, these rent shocks will be exacerbated if the economy improves faster than expected.

    Job growth promotes household expansion, as people living doubled up get jobs and find their own digs to move into.

    This household expansion reduces rental vacancy rates, promoting rent increases. Since the pipeline of new construction has been reduced to a trickle, it will be a decade or more before sufficient supply exists to meet rising demand.

    The upshot is that faster and greater job growth means faster and greater rent increases. Landlords are licking their chops now in anticipation of the windfall which awaits them.

    HUD rental subsidies are administered by local Housing Authorities, waiting lists are years long, and closed almost all of the time. So you need to get started now if you need rental assistance.

  47. Lizeth Tameron says 05 April 2013 at 10:51

    Interesting info, thanks. I would just to point out that even the Mayo clinic says that vigorous exercise while pregnant can be great for you.

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