Everyone needs to start from somewhere. While you build your personal finances from the ground up, you may already have faced times when you had low (or no) income, trying to get any advantage to pull yourself up.
There are several public programs specifically designed to help people get out of these situations. In the real world, many people suffer for months simply because they did not know help was available. These programs exist for people who have lost their jobs, or who have jobs but still earn very low income.
Unemployment insurance is a program run between the state and federal governments. This means that every state has an unemployment insurance program, but the actual rules will be a bit different around the country.
Whenever you work for a company, that company needs to pay “Unemployment Insurance” as part of the cost of hiring you. This works like an income tax, but it is paid 100% by your employer, and will not appear on your paycheck.
Unemployment insurance serves to help people who have lost their jobs make ends meet while they look for new work.
If you have worked for at least 3 months in the last year, you will probably be eligible for some unemployment benefits if you lose your job. Unemployment insurance is specifically for people who were working as assistance between jobs, not as a permanent way to live, so there are some strict eligibility requirements.
Reason Leaving Work
Unemployment insurance is designed specifically to help people who were laid off, meaning their employer had to let them go simply because there was not enough money to keep paying them (or not enough work to do). This means you usually cannot claim unemployment benefits if you voluntarily quit your job.
Sometimes the line between getting laid off and fired can be a bit blurry too, but the general rule is that you cannot have been fired from your job due to misconduct (i.e. deliberately hurting the company, or breaking ethics codes). If you get fired simply because you were not good at your job and your employer wanted to replace you, chances are you can still claim unemployment benefits.
Number of Weeks
Under normal circumstances, you can claim unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks. During economic recessions, the week limit might be raised. There is also a cap based on how long you’ve been working – if you were only working for a short time before you were laid off, you can only get unemployment benefits for as long as you were working.
To receive unemployment benefits, you must be able to work and be looking for work. This also means that if you get a job offer while on unemployment, you need to take it (or your benefits will expire). Your unemployment office will usually call you every week to verify you are still looking for work.
The job you were laid off from must have been “legitimate”, meaning it was a normal paycheck/tax position. If you were paid in cash, or your employer did not report that you were hired to the government, then you will not be able to receive benefits. Remember – unemployment insurance is insurance. If nobody paid the insurance premiums, you cannot collect any benefits.
When you make your claim, you will get a check each week, usually $200 – $400. This amount is based on a few factors, including:
- How much you were earning before you were laid off
- If you have children
- Your state’s benefit cap
Any benefits you get from unemployment insurance is taxable, just like regular income. For all tax purposes, your unemployment benefits act just like a paycheck from a job.
If you work part-time, you will not automatically lose your benefits. However, your benefits will be reduced by whatever you earn at your part-time job.
Applying for Benefits
The process of applying for benefits varies greatly by state, but usually just requires an online form. You can find some help by clicking here.
SNAP Food Assistance
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a program helping low income people and families pay for groceries (formally known as “food stamps”).
The SNAP program is open to all Americans earning under a specific household income threshold. The limit is based on household income, not individual income – this is important because the majority of recipients are children. The income threshold goes up the more people there are in a household.
A single person living alone needs to earn less than $1000 to be eligible, but a family of 4 can earn a bit over $2000 per month and still receive benefits.
There is also a work requirement for SNAP benefits – any able-bodied adults in the household must work, or be enrolled in a skills training program that will help them find a job. If you are not working and not in a training program, there are also programs where you can do volunteer work for the state to be eligible for benefits.
It is usually harder to enroll for SNAP benefits than collecting unemployment insurance. It is still state-based, so the process will be a bit different around the country. You will generally need to first apply online, then do an in-person interview while a case worker assesses your situation. The case worker will both determine if you are eligible, and the amount of benefits you will receive.
If you are enrolled in the SNAP program, you will get an “EBT Card”, which works like a pre-paid debit card at any participating grocery store. There will be 1 EBT card per household, and its balance will reset each month.
EBT cards are only accepted at grocery stores, and not everything in the store will count. SNAP benefits can only be used for healthy foods, so junk foods and some pre-made meals may not count.
Medicaid is the single largest provider of health insurance in the United States. It is designed to provide health coverage for low-income people and families – there are about 72 million people enrolled at any time. There is also a subset of Medicaid called CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), which is specifically for children.
Eligibility is based on household income. The income threshold is different in each state, and will move from year-to-year for standard Medicaid enrollment, but children will (almost) always be eligible for either Medicaid for CHIP benefits.
You can enroll in Medicaid from the Healthcare.gov website, which also has help with finding your specific eligibility requirements.
Housing Assistance – Section 8
If you are having trouble finding an affordable place to live, you can also apply for housing assistance through the “Section 8” program (named after Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937).
Section 8 provides housing vouchers to help pay rent and utilities for low income individuals and families. These vouchers can be used either at a “housing project”, or a building built and designed to accommodate low-income persons, or any participating landlord who accepts Section 8 vouchers.
Eligibility is based on income, but unlike the other programs it is based on the median income of the area where you are applying. If your family’s income is less than 30% of the average in your area, you are given priority. There are also some vouchers available for families earning less than 50% of the average, but these typically have extremely long (5+ years) waiting lists.
Even if you are eligible, there are a limited number of vouchers available each year, which is determined by the total budget set aside for Section 8 assistance. This means that even if you do qualify, you will need some luck to get a voucher.
The voucher will cover most of your rent and utilities, with two limitations. You need to first pay 30% of your net income (regardless of what that income is, or what the total cost of rent and utilities are). The voucher will then kick in and pay the remaining amount, up to a cap.
The cap for benefits is based on the Fair Market Value of housing in your area – this means the vouchers in New York City will have much higher caps than Knoxville, Tennessee. Your cap will increase depending on your household size (families with children have higher caps than single people living alone), but there is a maximum of $2000 per month.
If you are starting with low income, taking advantage of some (or all!) of these programs can go a long way to helping make ends meet, and free up more time and effort on focusing on improving your income.