It’s hard to write about government assistance programs without getting into a debate whether there should be a societal safety net or not. Many people view all welfare programs in a negative light — as inefficient bureaucracy at best or assistance for the undeserving poor at worst.
From my observations, it seems that most liberals / Democrats believe that the government should help all of its citizens. Most of my Republics/ conservatives friends and family members put their faith in the American Dream of “pulling yourself (and your family) up by your own bootstraps”. They tend to support a program or service only if they know someone who benefits from it.
In an earlier post, I highlighted California’s first-time home buyer programs. Many if not most other states have similar programs available for low- to middle-income households. I did not end up using this program but I learned that there are many, many national and state government programs out there, even for those in the middle-class.
Before I get into details, I want to “out” myself up-front as someone who has benefited greatly from receiving support during tougher times. I also admit that we were not the poorest of the poor. We had a little family help, too. Without the myriad of government-sponsored programs, however, I know we would be much worse-off today.*
Here is a quick run-down of government services that I’m thankful for:
1. Disability Insurance – In California, disability tax is taken out of every pay check. It’s not a larger amount. Should you ever become disable, you can tap into these funds and get approximately 55% of your regular paycheck. This short-term benefit made it much easier for us when I had to quit earlier than expected for a difficult pregnancy.
2. Paid Family Leave – I also took advantage of paid family leave benefits after my children were born.
3. Regional Center – I have a special needs child and we’re fortunate that the state offers services for people with developmental abilities such as Autism, Epilepsy, and Cerebral Palsy. Services provided include speech therapy, occupational therapy, respite and much more. They do require that you first try to get services paid by private insurance and Medi-Cal, which is fair. If private insurance approves services for your child, that means you are responsible for co-pays. Our ABA therapy alone adds up to approximately $480 per month! Luckily the Regional Center is able to help us with these co-payments.
4. Medi-Cal – There is a special Medi-Cal program for individuals with disabilities. First, it’s been a great relief to know that my child would get medical coverage even if I were to lose my job. (It may be different now with Obamacare but I haven’t looked into it.) This program has helped my family by filling in gaps in insurance coverage. When my child needed an expensive specialty formula, prescribed by the doctor but not covered by most private insurances, we were able to get the formula through Medi-cal.
5. In-home Supportive Services (IHSS) – This is a lesser-known program that works with families to keep a developmentally disabled individual in a home setting (versus being institutionalized).
In all cases, our income was documented to ensure that we qualified for services. We had to submit financial information and send them a copy of our tax return every year. I’m not saying fraud is impossible but we were rejected for two other government programs for having a little too much savings. There is also a lot of follow-up by case workers in order to prevent abuse.
It can be intimidating, confusing and frustrating to navigate the system to get government services. Government resources are limited and you have to act as an advocate to get enough services. We’ve been lucky to have a few good Case Managers at the Regional Center who have helped us navigate the process. However, I do most of the legwork and research on my own and follow up a lot (phone, email, fax, mail, you name it).
As with private insurance dealings, you’ve got to be very persistent and know your rights. Nice but firm gets better results. Tell them about worse-case scenarios. Do as much as you can IN WRITING. Make copies. Follow up, follow up, follow up.
* I would like to add that funding cuts have greatly affected the quality and quantity of government services available. It’s a lot of people fighting for a small slice of pie.
This is one in a sporadic series of tips/ideas to help you stay middle-class. Whether you consider yourself on the lower- or higher-end of the spectrum, you can probably find some useful tips to help you stay there and find save more for retirement even as wages stay stagnant.