How to Get Help When You’re Poor in America

By their mid-forties, most people have developed an expertise in something. For some it’s brain surgery, for others politics, and for some it’s assembly-line efficiency. I envy all the professionals who’ve established themselves and are able to do their jobs with the respect of their colleagues.

Having decided to take time off to parent my babies (a priceless time, and yet a job with built-in obsolescence), and then with the financially catastrophic divorce and deadbeat ex-husband, I find myself adrift in a world where my skills (my own unique brand of parenting, grammar & punctuation, a somewhat scatological sense of humor) aren’t very valued. And yet, in my career as a Poor Person, I have developed an expertise in How to Get Help When You’re Down and Out, and now I will share my expertise with you. Let’s see if you respect me when I’m done!

Before I begin I want to warn you: be ready to do a lot of paperwork, fill out a lot of applications and copy a lot of tax returns and paystubs. Keep all your financial records! But when you go, humbly, to seek assistance, do not expect to be treated badly. Quite the contrary.

The road to help begins at the Social Services office of your city. I can’t remember which occasion in my crisis first sent me to my Town Hall, but many of my recommendations came from discoveries I made there. People in this line of work will help you through the maze of options and applications. In my town (and hopefully in your town) they have supplies of sundry items: laundry detergent, shampoo, toilet paper and the like, and they’ll give you a bunch in a bag if you’re in need. Some come up with school supplies, holiday gifts, even a turkey. They organize their efforts to help with discretion and privacy in mind.

Another resource can come from local charities. Person to Person got a lot of my castoff clothes and food in happier times, and has given me groceries on more than one occasion. Its Thanksgiving turkey was truly festive: it came on a rack, surrounded by all kinds of fixins and side dishes, wrapped up in cellophane with a bow, with a home-baked pie alongside. When I saw all of this I cried. Charities’ staffs know how to make you feel loved, and many soup kitchens or food pantries in cities of all sizes employ experts who will help you find jobs, prepare resumes and organize your money. The YMCA or its equivalent can give you “scholarships,” ie freebies, for classes or kids’ camp. So can some towns. If you have the means now to support local charities, you should. They’ll cover you when you’re cold.

The government can help too. My Social Services ladies helped me apply for the state-funded Neon fuel assistance program. I spent all winter on a bureaucratic circuit — my oil company would call me to let me know a delivery was due, I would have to call Neon and ask them to fax (!) the oil company an authorization- but everyone was nice about the exchanges and I stayed (mostly) warm.

I already devoted an entire blog to Medicaid health coverage, but it’s another government service worth mentioning. So is the school lunch program- which cuts back on choices and sticks a kid with the “hot meal” that my daughter says draws pretty universal scorn at her cafeteria. This leads to some humiliation for a 12-year-old, especially when she tries for a sandwich and the chorus of lunchtime staff announces: “You can’t get that! That’s not part of the free lunch!” I had to remonstrate with the lunch people (more than once) to let her pay for something else if she didn’t want the free lunch. I tried to get the money for my daughter to choose her lunch — this is one of those areas where you do what you can because you don’t want your circumstances to overly affect your child.

Personally, I found support in my church. When my divorce got ugly, the director of my kids’ nursery school at the First Congregational Church took me to meet the minister there. He consoled me and I began attending church. It was a great church for me – liberal and open-minded. Although I don’t have much in common with the rich, married congregation at my church I still feel a sense of community there. I was able to volunteer and contribute in various ways — always a good thing- and connect my family to inexpensive or free activities. My kids got a week on a lakeside via a “scholarship” to our church camp. I had my children join the cute little junior choir – free, taught by a funny, gracious man, and the one activity that my kids were never reluctant to attend. After a couple of years, the choir director suggested my son audition for the St. Thomas Choir School in New York. We did that and he got in and now we go to St. Thomas Church in Manhattan every weekend to see my son sing.

I will devote another blog to this amazing church and choir, but who would have thought that such a wonderful thing would have come out of all the crap I was living through?

Finally, I’m glad I started studying when I was poor- and not just because it started me toward learning some of those skills most people my age seem to have. It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you can get into school with the goal of improving your situation, your tuition will usually include health insurance coverage. You can use student loans to cover the tuition. I had to work part-time to make ends meet as well. Apply for any scholarship you can (yes, lots more paperwork — the college can help you learn about scholarships). After being accepted to grad school, I had to decide whether to attend right when my ex-husband got caught in financial shenanigans and stopped paying my mortgage. I wasn’t sure if I’d be broke and homeless before I graduated. But I made it through. I’m glad I decided to go, although my student loans are about coming due and so I’ll have to see how I feel about it then. I was able to make it through two years of grad school before my house got foreclosed. Luck?

I think of it as something more complicated, and more strategic. And I thank all the people and institutions who helped me when I needed it.

Kathryn Higgins’s new book of  humor, Snide Remarks in Sotto Voce, is available at most ebook outlets through Smashwords. ...read more

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