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Friday, October 2, 2009

Do you have trouble swallowing your pride?

The time to swallow your pride is not the day the electricity gets cut off.

Most Americans have never cashed an unemployment check, used a food bank, visited a public health clinic or even clipped coupons with zeal. We like to think that we can take care of ourselves, that we're the kind of people who offer help rather than take it.

That's a swell attitude to have -- until you're looking at a hungry child or an eviction notice. Don't let this happen. Public and private agencies will help you eat, pay the rent, keep the utilities on and get your kids immunized.

Pride shouldn't get in the way of survival. State and federal programs operate with the taxes you've been paying all these years, and private programs exist specifically to help those in temporary need.

Here's what you can expect as you test the public safety net. And remember: When times are better, you can give back.

You are far from alone

In this economy, more and more folks who once made a good living are joining the ranks of the unemployed or the working poor.

"We're (hearing) a lot of 'I never thought I'd be here,'" said Moses Carey Jr., the chairman of the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina.

If layoff is looming -- and even if one isn't -- you need to know your options. Some people don't even know how to start the unemployment process. (Not sure, either? Start here.)

Get over the idea that unemployment benefits are some kind of welfare. Unemployment insurance is just that: insurance against joblessness. Should your employer challenge the claim, you can appeal -- if you act quickly.

And now for a hard truth: Your old job might be gone forever, and your skill set might be obsolete. That's the case in North Carolina, where workers feel abandoned by the manufacturing, biotech and financial companies that once provided a good living, Carey said.

"What we tell them is they need to reinvent themselves so they can compete," he said.

Having gone back to school after three decades away, I can definitely say that yes, this is intimidating. But so is life without employable skills. Go in and talk to job counselors about vocational rehab, job retraining or higher education. Just be wary of incurring too much student debt.

Gimme shelter

How long could you keep a roof over your head if you lost your job? Would a month's worth of unemployment checks cover a month's worth of housing? Or suppose your rent goes up just as your hours get cut at work -- what then?

Think about this now. Right now. Maybe you could seek out cheaper digs or move in with a family member. Maybe you could take in a housemate or two. You could start searching for a job that will let you live rent-free, such as live-in nanny or apartment house manager.

Federally subsidized housing is available, but waiting lists are long, and in some cities the waiting lists are closed to new applicants. Sign up if you like, but don't count on getting a place anytime soon. Some states have rental assistance programs; click here to find out more.

Private organizations might be able to help. Requests for rent and utility assistance are up 40% at North Helpline, an emergency-services agency in Seattle. "We're hearing from people who have never needed this kind of service before," Executive Director Amy Besunder said.

Many clients volunteer at the agency because it makes them feel better about accepting assistance, Besunder said. So when you seek aid, ask if volunteers are needed. Note: A sustained record of service can bolster your résumé.

Get your resume on 75 job sites

House and apartment sharing are increasingly common in Portland, Ore., according to John Elizalde of the Northeast Emergency Food Program. Regular visits to food banks and soup kitchens are a survival tactic, he noted, because they let you divert grocery dollars toward rent or mortgage payments.

As a last resort, you can always flop on the couches of friends or family. But that's scarily close to homelessness. Don't rely on this as a tactic.

Having trouble with utilities? Call customer service, explain the situation and ask to set up a repayment plan. Some social service agencies, such as North Helpline, offer utility assistance; ask, ask, ask. You can also apply for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. An increasing number of those seeking help are working-class families, spokesman Mark Wolfe said.

Do not underestimate the power of coupon clipping. Rent, mortgage and car payments are hard to tweak, but your grocery bill "has a lot of wiggle room," said Stephanie Nelson of

Print FREE Grocery Coupons at Home

A number of sites and blogs match coupons to weekly sales and promotions. This can make a serious dent in grocery bills. Nelson, the author of the upcoming "The Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half," says she spends as little as $3 for a spaghetti dinner for her family of five.

Coupons are available free on a ton of Internet sites. Save money on your favorite brands at Click for many grocery coupons for free. You can even get them from a rewards program such as MyPoints, then use the points to get free gift cards for gasoline or groceries.

Are you worried about being embarrassed by the sighs and eye rolls from cashiers or other shoppers who might have to wait an additional second or two for a coupon to be scanned? A recent survey from Supermarket News indicates that 57% of respondents who used to feel embarrassed no longer care, as long as they are saving money.

They got over it. You can, too.

One in eight Americans is "food insecure," or lacking access to enough food, according to Feeding America, formerly known as America's Second Harvest. A day or two of lean eats until payday is one thing. A chronic lack of basic nutrition means that people should set aside notions of who, exactly, uses food banks.

When my mother used one when I was a child, I felt that she had compulsive need to explain herself. She used to take care of my sick brother. Now she has a good job. She is the first to contribute to food banks. Employees at Portland's food program hear that sort of thing a lot, Elizalde said.

"People just have to accept (their current situations)," he said. "At the end of the day, it's better to feed your kids and yourself."

To find food banks in your area, click here. Find out the details -- when they're open, what kind of documentation to bring -- before the cupboard is bare. Don't risk going home empty-handed.

If you're allowed to go more than once a week, do it. Or find out whether there is more than one food pantry you can use. These tactics will let you build a small pantry and set aside a few more dollars for rent or emergencies.

Sometimes the food bank isn't enough. You might get bread and noodles but little else. When demand is high and donations sparse, you may get nothing at all. If you're underemployed or unemployed, consider applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the new name for the federal food stamp program) or the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

Again, don't wait until you're in crisis to check out these programs. It will take days or weeks to get approved.

Incidentally, getting food assistance is less embarrassing these days because paper coupons have been replaced by "electronic benefit transfer" cards. As far as the people in line behind you know, you're using a debit card.

Guarding your health

Whether you've lost your job or simply can't hack the insurance premiums any longer, start lining up health care before you actually need it. You can't work or look for work when you're sick.

Those who had insurance before being laid off can continue coverage under COBRA. Private health insurance might be cheaper, however. If you can't afford either one, I will be covering that in the near future.

Public health and community health centers can be literal lifesavers to those without coverage. Dr. Lauren Cianciaruso of the Loudoun County (Va.) Community Health Center has been seeing unemployed or uninsured patients whose chronic diseases were not being treated.

"We are able to get them the care they need," including medications, said Cianciaruso, chief medical officer.

Community health centers operate on a sliding-scale basis. So do county and state public health departments. A relative of mine who's on disability has gotten excellent, compassionate care at a public health clinic.

Yes, at times you may share the waiting room with drug addicts, the homeless or the mentally ill. Welcome to the real world, where you get to mingle with people who don't look like you. And, yes, asking for cheap or free doctor visits can be embarrassing. Do it anyway. Ignoring a health problem is never smart.

"You don't want to wait until you're so sick that you'll have to go to the emergency room. That's 10 times as expensive," said Dr. Charissa Fotinos of the Seattle area's public health department.

Besides, anyone who has paid taxes helped pay for these clinics. Once you're working, you'll be paying again. To find a community health center or public health clinic in your region, click here.

Lose the attitude

A common denominator of all these aid programs: questions. You will probably have to answer a lot of questions, and some will feel intrusive, such as marital status or personal assets. This can make newcomers develop a bit of "attitude," according to the Rev. June Cooper of the City Mission Society of Boston.

"They've never had to be under that kind of scrutiny," Cooper said.

Remember that everyone else has to answer the same questions. Remember, too, that this is where you are now. You won't be here forever.

When, exactly, will you be somewhere else? A job could surface next week, a cheaper apartment next month. Or maybe not. Stop obsessing over timetables, advised social worker Misha Tawakoli of Leesburg, Va.

"Don't look at the distant future. Look at immediate needs," she said. "You will get through this one day at a time."

The workings of the economy are beyond your control. Choosing to survive is an act of self-determination. Few people want to ask for help. But sometimes it just makes sense.

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Mr.Dangerfield is an I.A.P.D.A Certified Debt Specialist whom has worked in the finance industry for 11 years. He manages and is the author of "A Dangerfield Manifesto" and co-founder of SMG Holdings, the parent company of Squad Music Group, Dangerfield Artistic Entertainment SMG Publishing and Taboo Dangerfield Publishing
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