What to Do When You Run Out of Unemployment

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Yvonne Fitzner’s unemployment benefits ran out a year ago so like most “99ers,” the 68-year-old found herself doing whatever she could to get by.

“I sold personal possessions,” she tells MainStreet. “I sold my jewelry, dining room table and chairs, and now the only seat I have left is a stepladder.”

Fitzner had her rent reduced through a senior citizen scrie rent increase exemption, but today she mostly relies on the kindness of friends and strangers to help her pay for medical and utility bills, as she lives alone and therefore doesn’t qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly known as welfare).

As dire as it is, Fitzner’s situation isn’t unique. The New York resident is just one among millions of jobless Americans who have yet to find work before their unemployment benefits run out and are asking themselves, What next?

“So many people who’ve lost their jobs have never had to deal with these problems,” says Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a national advocacy group for low-wage workers. “They’re having trouble navigating them, and just the sheer amount of information that goes into what it takes to apply for [government assistance] has been daunting to folks.”

Worse, “lots of people are not going to find a job fast enough,” Dixon adds, so more and more jobless Americans will run out of benefits, which poses a serious issue, since “unemployment benefits are sort of the lynchpin of a worker’s safety net in America.” 

Dixon and other advocates for the jobless are hard at work encouraging the Department of Labor to put all of their resources in one place so that Americans who maxed out their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits can bypass the maze of government websites to easily identify, research and apply for the assistance they need—essentials like food and money to keep the lights on.

According to the experts we spoke with, the number of federally funded programs out there is small, but options exist if you know where to look. If you recently ran out of benefits, your first step is to visit the Department of Labor’s job site, careeronestop.org, to see what government aid you might qualify for. Next, you should come up with a budget to see exactly what you’ll need, according to Dorothy Barrick, a financial counselor with debt consulting company GreenPath.

MainStreet put together a list of federally-funded and nonprofit unemployment assistance programs for needy Americans to have as they work to get back on their feet. We list the federal programs first, then offer any nonprofit or community-based alternatives that we found during our research.

LIVING ASSISTANCE

When your benefits run out and you have a family to support, it can feel like the bottom has fallen out.

“A lot of unemployed job seekers don’t have anyone but themselves, and they’re trying to maintain a family and a car payment, and who knows what else,” says Monica Ross-Williams, an unemployed mother of two in Ann Arbor, Mich., who hosts a talk show, Reach Out Job Search, on BlogTalkRadio.com.

If this sounds like your situation, perhaps the government can help by getting your family enrolled in TANF, a federally funded program that offers monetary assistance to struggling, nearly destitute households. Just be aware that eligibility requirements vary from state to state, says Neal Nair, a TANF program analyst, and if you’re a single adult, “you just don’t qualify,” Dixon says.

“A lot of people don’t want to do this,” says Ross-Williams, “but when you’re on your last leg, you have to. I would implore them to connect with whoever is responsible for their state placement agency, too. It’s a lot of competition, even for those jobs, but if you’re letting yourself just roll with what you’re going through, you’re missing an opportunity that could get you by until you find something else.”

FOOD

As we’ve reported before, the number of America’s homeless—and its hungry—skyrocketed in 2010, with 31 million Americans enrolling in the Supplemental Nutritional Alliance Plan (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) last year.

Meeting the criteria for this form of assistance ($101 per person and $227 per household in fiscal year 2008) can be tough—for example, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website says “gross monthly income of most households must be 130% or less of the Federal Poverty Guidelines” to get food stamps. But exceptions are handled on a case-by-case basis, and in some instances even non-U.S. citizens may qualify.

Since each state has its own application, the first step in applying for SNAP benefits is to visit the USDA’s SNAP website to find the nearest office where applicants can take care of paperwork. Some states even allow you to apply online. See whether you or your family qualifies for SNAP by using the USDA’s Pre-Screening Eligibility Tool.

And for more information about how SNAP benefits work in your state, call your state’s local SNAP hotline.

If you have children in school, the National School Lunch Program, a government-funded meal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches to more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools across America.  

Where food stamps and school lunches leave off, non-governmental programs like Feeding America step in to fill the hunger gap.

“Our role is strictly limited to getting food to people who don’t have food,” says Ross Fraser, media relations manager for Feeding America, a loose coalition of 200 food banks across the U.S. “The reason that we exist is that food stamps are only a supplemental program,” Fraser says. “They were never designed for people to live on, and only one in seven Americans does.” 

Also since many of those on food stamps typically use their monthly allotment within two weeks, Fraser says, Feeding America “helps fill the gap” when Americans are starving, but live too far above the poverty line to tap the government for help. 

If you’re among the millions of Americans in this scary predicament, visit Feeding America’s website to locate a food bank near you. Do your homework, as each agency has its own criteria for who and when it will serve, Fraser says. Pick up the phone and ask for details.

If SNAP or Feeding America aren’t able to help, most churches and senior centers will offer some sort of assistance to the hungry in the community.

“I visit soup kitchens seven times a week at a different church every night,” Fitzner says.

She recommends visiting your local church and getting a copy of what she calls a “street sheet,” a community-gathered database that lists free meals and other services for the needy such as free haircuts and where to get your clothes cleaned.

FINANCIAL COUNSELING

If you’re drowning in credit card debt, your home’s underwater or you’re a senior who’s considering taking out a reverse mortgage, debt counseling can be an empowering step toward financial freedom for the jobless.

“We see anybody,” says Barrick, a financial counselor at GreenPath Debt Solutions. “All they need is to reach out and say they need our help. They don’t have to meet any income criteria and there is no debt criteria. Everyone that comes in is looking for something else.”

Among the services GreenPath Debt Solutions offers are Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counseling, typically a pre-existing qualification for mortgage modification; counseling certificates for those about to file for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy; certificates for reverse mortgages; debt management programs and help with drafting a budget, which Barrick says always comes first in devising a financial game plan.

“For some, we can pull their credit report or tell them to bring their own so that we can help them to understand what they need to do to improve their credit score,” says Barrick.

GreenPath comes recommended by Ross-Williams, also an unemployment advocate, and is certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, America’s largest financial counseling organization and a watchdog for such agencies.

“There are a lot of debt management companies out there that aren’t the good guys,” says Barrick, who’s worked at GreenPath Debt Solutions for 22 years. Look for those under the NFCC umbrella, and if you’re in dire financial straits, know that help is on hand, especially if you have access to the Internet and a vast array of online money-skills teaching tools.

The website ManagingMyMoney.com offers useful educational tools that can help needy Americans become more financially literate and is especially helpful for those living on a fixed income such as unemployment benefits. The site is overseen by the nonprofit National Endowment for Financial Education.

If you’re currently unemployed—or feel anxious you will be—check out MainStreet’s financial roadmap for the unemployed.

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