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How You Can Get Aid if You’re Down and Out

The news hit like a thunderbolt in some parts of the country. General Motors, the nation’s biggest car company, will eliminate 74,000 jobs--roughly one in every five of its U.S. employees.

But GM’s move is not the first, nor is it likely to be the last, of the gigantic job cuts expected in 1992. Already dozens of major employers have announced plans to cut tens of thousands of jobs. More layoff announcements are expected in January.

In better times, many furloughed workers would be rehired, would find new jobs or start businesses in a matter of months. But today’s recession has proved more nagging than other recent downturns. Companies are slow to rehire, banks are reluctant to lend to new businesses and people are generally out of work longer than before.

Those who lose their jobs are likely to fall into a social and economic void--too old to go home to Mom and Dad and too young and able-bodied to apply for many forms of government assistance.

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In many cases, there is some help available. Few people, however, know where to find it or what kind of assistance is provided, and the help that is provided rarely compensates individuals for all they’ve lost. Nevertheless, finding help can be pivotal to maintaining your home, your possessions and feeding and caring for your family.

This is the first in a five-part series on the American social services system--the safety net that is supposed to catch those who are down on their luck and keep them from falling into total poverty. Articles in this series will talk about how much help is available and how people can apply for government programs such as unemployment insurance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps, and give information about what private organizations can help those who don’t qualify for many types of aid.

One article will explore what financial steps individuals should take when they find out they’re about to be laid off. This advice may be more important than ever because social workers and other experts on the U.S. safety net system maintain that the net is developing more holes. Programs are more limited, payments are less generous and more people than ever are falling through, they say.

In simple terms, there are few federal programs for “employable people,” said Leonard Schneiderman, dean of the UCLA School of Social Work. If you are 25 to 60, single and able-bodied, the federal government assumes that you can find work, Schneiderman said.

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Those who fit into this category must generally look to state, county and local agencies to provide help. There are many programs that are provided in every state, with minor variations. A brief overview of these nationally available sources of aid:

- Unemployment compensation provides temporary and limited assistance to individuals who lose their jobs after at least six months of work. Although these benefits are usually paid a maximum of 26 weeks, recently enacted legislation has stretched them to 39 to 46 weeks, depending upon the unemployment rate in the state where you live.

The most generous states provide up to 70% of an applicant’s average weekly wage, while other states cover 50% of working wages--at most. Additionally, all states have maximum payment caps, usually $150 to $300 per week.

- Aid to Families with Dependent Children can provide hundreds of dollars a month to needy families. Although the program was launched to help single parents with dependent children, it was widened in 1990 to better help two-parent households where the primary wage earner is out of work.

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The amount of benefit provided depends on the family’s monthly income, state of residence and number of children. The median benefit for a family of three in 1990 was $367 per month, but this family could have received as little as $120 per month if they lived in Mississippi and as much as $891 if they lived in Alaska.

- Food stamps are government-provided coupons that people can use to pay for groceries. They cannot be used to buy clothing or alcohol, but are widely accepted as payment for all other types of food and drink. Food stamp benefits also vary, based on family size, income and where you live, but the benefit for a family of three would generally fall between $200 and $300 monthly.

- Medicaid provides medical care for needy families who have no other health insurance. Often, acceptance into AFDC and food stamp programs automatically qualifies individuals for Medicaid coverage. Some families, moreover, may be able to maintain the coverage for a limited time even after the primary wage earner goes back to work.

- Housing assistance is provided in a variety of forms. In many areas, public housing is available, although there is often a long waiting list. There are also programs that will help people pay their rent. Many states also provide tax credits for low-income renters. These credits are often available regardless of whether you paid tax that year.

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- Child care assistance is provided to families who qualify for the AFDC program and need help with child care in order to work. The state may provide the care, provide child care vouchers or reimbursement. The amount provided may not be less than the lesser of actual cost or $175 per month per child over the age of 2, and $200 per month per child under the age of 2.

Kathy M. Kristof welcomes readers’ comments and suggestions for columns but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters and phone calls. Write to Personal Finance, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.


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