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Finding help in hard times -- Page 2

Get government guidance
Then there are the government assistance channels. Cruise the Internet to find Web sites for your city, county or state governments or check your local phone book's white pages if you prefer to speak directly to someone. Use these offices as resources to find leads to free or low-cost help, such as medical care for children. The local Department of Health and Human Resource Development is a good place to start.

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Government Web pages often include aid listings. Some local jurisdictions even have specific sites to showcase available assistance. Two examples: Massachusetts operates MassResources.org and the city of Worcester, Mass., has its own site dedicated to local assistance programs and organizations.

Assistance limitations
It gets a bit more difficult, however, when you actually ask the government for direct help. A family that has been solidly middle-class but now faces financial trouble might not be able to get much official assistance. While you may not have enough money to pay your bills, some income (one spouse still working) and assets such as a car or savings account could disqualify you.

"Government aid is pretty tough to get," Hofer says. "What happens is that aid eligibility isn't based just on income, but also assets. So a family that has recently fallen on hard times may still have assets and will be less likely to qualify."

Take the requirements to receive food stamps. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, households may have $2,000 in what is termed countable resources. (The limit's a bit higher for families that include a person who is older than 60 or is disabled). Your resources also include a portion of the value of any vehicle you own.

Plus, recipient income is capped. The food stamps program restricts eligibility by gross income as well as net income, a lower amount reached after taking certain deductions, such as some dependent care costs or uninsured medical expenses for disabled or elderly family members. Currently, the monthly gross income limit for a family of four is $1,994; the net amount cannot exceed $1,534.

The federal government also has a fuel assistance program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which administers the National Energy Assistance Referral project. But LIHEAP, like many other state or local government programs, is designed for low-income families rather than those who are financially stressed but still have assets.

Many states do offer assistance programs for families with children. A popular one is subsidized health care, identified by the acronym for State Children's Health Insurance Program. SCHIP was created by federal legislation in 1997 to allow each state to offer health insurance for children up to age 19 who are not already insured. Although designed as a federal-state partnership, each state sets its own guidelines regarding eligibility and services; program budgets are based on individual state finances, meaning a state's child health care funding depends on how much money the state has, not necessarily the need for the coverage. And like their federal assistance counterparts, state-run programs have economic requirements that a family new to hard times may not be able to meet.

Getting help in the proper order
That's why it's better to start with the non-government assistance sources. These groups' eligibility requirements are not as stringent and are more flexible than those of government agencies. Many let people "self-declare" whether they are in need.

"If [former Enron CEO] Ken Lay shows up at our door, we won't grill him," says Denton Randall, director of development for Dare to Care Food Bank in Louisville, KY. "If someone pulls up in a Bentley maybe we'll go beyond the normal questioning, but that really doesn't happen. People come here when they really need help."

The bad news is that most assistance programs are designed to provide only stop-gap help.

Food banks, for example, are meant to supplement, not supply all the food you and your family may need. Because of that, a food bank is definitely not one-stop shopping for all your food needs. Many people will go to a food bank while waiting for food stamps approval or because they're not getting enough food by using the stamps.

At Louisville's Dare to Care facility, clients can request a week's worth of food four times in a 12-month period. The Gallatin Valley Food Bank honors one request for four to five days of food every 30 days, although the Bozeman-based food bank does make exceptions for people in extremely difficult situations. "If it's a serious emergency like a family's trailer has burned down and they have no clothes then we'll be more flexible," Grenier says.

Still, any bit of relief may be just what you need to help you begin putting your financial life back in order.

And remember that you can still help yourself. Call your creditors, explain your situation and negotiate for better terms. Your natural gas supplier may be willing to be more flexible on payment, might point you in the direction of federal or state emergency fuel programs or offer an alternative payment plan that is better suited to your circumstances.

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

 

 
 
-- Posted: Sept. 14, 2004
   

 

 
 

 

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