Meet the Expert
Mary-Ellen-Peden
Mary Ellen Peden

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Mary Ellen Peden is a general manager in the hospitality industry in Tennessee. She is a former SNAP Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, providing application assistance and SNAP education training for partnering organizations and nonprofits in Middle Tennessee. She authored the “2014 Snap Outreach and Advocacy Best Practices Field Guide” on contract with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Rebecca-Newman
Rebecca Newman

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Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Everyone needs a hand sometimes. It’s the father who got laid off as COVID-19 went from potential outbreak to pandemic. It’s the single mom who found a third eviction notice on the front door after just five months in her new place. It’s the veteran who can’t pay his water bill because he can only get part-time hours at the VA hospital. It’s your friend, your neighbor, or even a family member. It’s one in five Americans today.

The goal of public assistance is to provide timely and substantive help to those who need it the most. Affordable housing programs – such as public housing and choice vouchers – help individuals and families locate and keep a stable roof over their heads. And food security programs — like SNAP and WIC — help anyone who’s hungry get a consistent supply of food in their fridges, pantries, and cupboards. That said, public assistance isn’t straightforward. There’s eligibility, application, documentation, and a host of other hurdles that can make the process feel discouraging, even when it doesn’t have to be.

The STEPS guides to public assistance provide key information, expert insight, and step-by-step rundowns of local, state, and federal help programs. Learn what each program entails, who is eligible, how to apply, and what to do once everything has been processed.

Public Assistance Resources by Need

Affordable Housing

If more than 30% of your annual income goes to housing, it’s considered a cost burden. If you’re struggling to pay your mortgage or your rent – or if you’ve found yourself without a place to live at all – see which public housing programs can help you get back on your feet.

Bill & Utility Assistance

When the rent is due and you need to eat, sometimes the utilities don’t get paid. Water and electricity bills can be a burden when times are tough. Learn about local, state, and federal programs that can help you pay your utility bills without stressing over a potential shut off.

Child Care Assistance

It can be hard to hold down a steady job when you have children to take care of. And if you don’t have friends or relatives to help you, it can be even harder. The good news is, child care assistance programs can provide that help, and make it easier for working parents to earn a living without sacrificing the health and wellness of their kids. Learn about the top child care assistance programs in your area.

Food Security

Including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and food stamps, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program, food security assistance programs are available to individuals and groups in hard times. Learn how each program works and what you need to do to qualify and get started quickly.

Unemployment, Job Placement & Training

If you’ve lost your job, need to develop your work skills, or need job search assistance, there are several public assistance programs available to you. The Dislocated Workers Program for those who have been laid off or terminated can offer you transition assistance to locate or qualify for a new job. Read about unemployment help, job placement programs, and education and training assistance today.

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Public assistance changed my life by feeding my family when I wasn’t able to on my own.

– Mary Ellen

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Obtain all the information you can prior to applying, and ask for help along the way. Your local agency does want to help you receive aid and benefits.

– Rebecca

Do You Need Assistance? Self Q&A

How do you know if you’re a good candidate for public assistance? Sometimes we get so overwhelmed and caught up in our challenges that we lose sight of the fact that real help is within reach. Consider asking yourself the following questions to see how your responses stack up.

Have you missed more than one bill payment in the last 30 days?

Missing a bill payment can trap you in a loop of penalties, interest, and debt collection. These work to increase the overall amount of money you owe, and therefore make it tougher to surface from the mounting debt. The sooner you can get help with your bills, the more you can save.

Have you been forced to move more than once in the last 12 months?

It is important for you and your family to have safe and affordable housing. If you’ve been forced to move multiple times in the last 12 months because you couldn’t afford your rent or for another reason, you may find relief in applying for a federal program. The government at all levels has a number of affordable housing services that can help.

Have you struggled to find someone to watch your kids so you can go to work?

We know that watching and taking care of children has its challenges, especially when it comes balancing childcare and work. We can only call in so many favors from friends, neighbors, and family members. The STEPS guide to childcare assistance provides a list of government programs for folks who need help in this area.

Do you frequently find that, after paying your bills and other necessary expenses, that you have very little to no money left to buy groceries?

Our paychecks can only go so far, and sometimes we’re left without much to get even the basic necessities, such as nutritional food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP and formerly known as food stamps, gives you access to low-cost food when you’re in a bind. Learn about food security programs if you need assistance.

Have you unexpectedly lost your job and are having difficulty locating steady employment to replace it? Or are you now injured or ill and can’t work as a result?

The federal government has a variety of programs to help you locate work, as well as workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits to provide you with some income while you work on finding another job, including medical expenses, lost wages, and rehabilitation costs. There are also self-employment assistance and initiative programs if you live in Delaware, Mississippi, New York, New Hampshire, or Oregon.

Whom to Contact if You Need Help

The STEPS guides should have plenty of information about your specific need, whether it’s related to housing, food, bills, child care, or work. But sometimes it helps to talk to a real person. Someone who actively works with people in your area to get them the help they need when they need it the most. If you’d like to speak to someone about assistance for yourself and/or your family, start here:

City or County Social Services

You can also search for resources offered by your city or county. Depending on your location, you may be able to find programs that help the community with food, housing, sobriety, and other needs. Washoe County in Nevada, for example, offers a variety of assistance services including housing programs for homeless individuals and families, burial and cremation cost assistance, and financial assistance for persons placed in extended care facilities. Davidson County in Tennessee provides similar services, including life skills training to advance family stability. Metro Services offers case management professionals to help residents find both housing and jobs.

Thankfully you can find all of these city and county services through the metro council in your area. Most of the time they can be contacted by phone, in-person, or online. You may also find that your city or county offers quick-dial services. Washoe County, for example, allows residents to dial 311 to contact professionals in all non-emergency services in the area.

State Service Agencies

State service agencies can also provide you with assistance and supportive programs in times of need. State-specific offerings typically include welfare, medical assistance, child support, and employment services. It is best to contact your state’s department of health and human services, or the equivalent entity in your area, to get a full list of services.

The state of Nevada, for example, offers childcare and support services, child support payment assistance, energy and medical bill assistance, SNAP, and temporary financial assistance for needy families (TANF). In Tennessee, the equivalent department goes by simply the Department of Human Services. Residents in TN can find state-funded housing programs, vocational rehabilitation services, adult daycare programs, and more through the department’s site. A general google search for your state’s agency directory or a phone call to its human services department can get you on the right track in no time.

Expert Panel on Public Assistance

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

Mary Ellen Peden is a general manager in the hospitality industry in Tennessee. She is a former SNAP Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, providing application assistance and SNAP education training for partnering organizations and nonprofits in Middle Tennessee. She authored the “2014 Snap Outreach and Advocacy Best Practices Field Guide” on contract with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

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Kate

Anonymous contributor and college student with experience applying for and receiving public assistance.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

What’s one thing everyone should know before they apply for public assistance?

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

The application process is often long. Most public assistance programs require proof of identity, often proof of residence, and some programs require proof of work, income, utility payments, and even bank statements. Gathering the needed documentation can be complicated, and submitting this information often must be done in-person. It can take a considerable effort to qualify for public assistance, and then to maintain it. The good news is that some emergency assistance programs will honor the application date and you may be eligible to receive benefits retroactively to that date. Don’t give up!

USER

Kate

You should know that most of the time, this process requires PATIENCE. The system can be really complex and tough to understand, but it is worth it to push through. While it might seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that you are your best advocate. If you stay patient and persistent in finding someone to help you navigate the available resources, you can find them! Tell the truth about your situation, don’t give up, and always fight for yourself. The resources are out there, it just might take some work to find them.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

Before applying for public assistance, it is important to understand that your local assistance body makes determinations of support based on municipal or state standards of need. Disability status, dependents, income, and expenses all play a role in the way that resources are allocated to an individual or family in need. While your personal circumstances may exceed the level of benefits for which you are eligible, the determination is based on the information you provide, sadly not on the opinion of any public assistance worker to make a determination.

What’s the first thing a person should do when they receive their benefits?

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

As a former SNAP/Food Stamps recipient, the first thing I did when I got my EBT card in the mail was purchase groceries for my family! Read the information that was included with your approval and make note of any further required action. If you’re assigned a caseworker, save their name and number in your phone or write it down. Keep your application paperwork and documentation together so that you can access them easily at the time of recertification. If you have questions about your benefits make a phone call to your caseworker or the program office.

USER

Kate

I like to compare my benefits received to the claim I was given. In other words, I want to make sure I received the correct amount – the amount I was promised. Then, depending on your situation, you are able to use these benefits. It is very important to be careful to follow the rules and be responsible with these resources. They are limited and are there to help you create a better situation for yourself, and if you invest these resources wisely they can truly change the course of your life.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

When you first receive your benefits, check to make sure they are in working order. Your department of public assistance will have likely sent you a letter with the amount of support, as well as any accessories you will need to utilize your benefits, like a debit card for SNAP/EBT benefits. When you have received your card, go to a grocery store, perhaps at an off-peak time in case the process takes longer than expected the first time, to use your card and make sure it is in working order. For Medicaid recipients, contact your physician’s office or clinic and ask them to look through your state’s system to verify that your coverage is active. Once you have received that confirmation, you can begin to utilize services.

If a person is denied the benefits they need, what’s the best next step?

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

If your application is denied, make a phone call to the program office, or go in person if you’re able. Sometimes it’s a miscommunication or lack of paperwork. By this point in the process you will know that this can take some time, but don’t delay. The best possible outcome is to speak with someone who will answer your questions. If this is unsuccessful and/or you feel that you have been wrongfully denied, or simply aren’t sure, contact your local Legal Aid Society and ask them to review your application and help in the case you need to appeal.

USER

Kate

Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. I would track down any phone number or point of contact and try to get a person on the phone. Sometimes denial happens for simple application mistakes so getting a person on the phone allows you to explain your situation in detail and ask advice on how to move forward. Most of the time, these denials are reversible, you just might have to push a little harder to get your situation approved. Again, stay patient and collect as much paperwork or “proof” of your situation to verify your need.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

If you are denied benefits, or receive an allocation that is far below what you need, each state has an appeals process for public assistance. You may be asked to provide further financial information, information about dependents, or pay stubs to verify your income and need for assistance. It can be difficult at this stage to not become frustrated with the process and the people assisting you, as the process is delayed and you are in need. Try to build a relationship with your assigned worker to collaborate on how you can receive the benefits and aid that you need.

What can an applicant do to ensure that the process moves along, or put their best foot forward, and avoid denial periods?

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

Know what documents you are expected to provide. If you have questions, call and ask. When going to an in-person interview, take more than you think you might need and be prepared to answer questions about your application, and the documentation you submit. While the application process can be daunting or confusing, sometimes your application can be reviewed during an in-person interview. If this isn’t possible, try to get someone on the phone. I cannot state how important it is to speak with someone who can answer your questions, and to make sure you have all the paperwork in order.

USER

Kate

Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. The more proof you have of your current situation, the better. Be as organized as you can, keeping a file of everything required, so that when you do get someone on the phone you have all the answers you need right in front of you. For some benefits, they will ask very detailed questions about your personal/financial life, and the more prepared you are with those answers, the faster this process will go. Again, for me, this comes back to patience. If you go into the process wanting quick results, you will get frustrated right away. If you stay patient and organized, you have a better chance of avoiding denials.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

The process has been accelerated due to the prevalence of individuals who connect with online resources. Much of the application can take place online, mostly eliminating the lengthy waits in public assistance offices. Utilize as many of these options as possible to streamline the process, and don’t be afraid to use the helpline to ask for assistance if you have questions about the application. It is better to ask a question about the application than to make a mistake or indicate something incorrectly and receive a denial. Obtain all the information you can prior to applying, and ask for help along the way. Your local agency does want to help you receive aid and benefits.

Based on your experience applying for or receiving public assistance, or your time helping or advising others to apply, what’s one surprising element that you discovered or learned?

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

The most encouraging thing I learned during the years I both received benefits and helped others apply, is that many people want to help. While knowing all the guidelines themselves can be an access barrier, there are a lot of people within assistance programs and in other places, such as Legal Aid, that work very hard to ensure that applicants receive the benefits they need. Keep asking for what you need until you find the people who will help you. Public assistance changed my life by feeding my family when I wasn’t able to on my own.

USER

Kate

The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that there are resources out there and I have met the criteria for them. I went into the application process for public assistance with a lot of fear and was met with the resources I needed to help me survive. I was worried that I would be rejected for a number of reasons, but that was not the case. The process can be frustrating and not every public assistance worker is the same. You will have to work with people who might not be kind, but the hope is that eventually someone will get you what you need. Applying for assistance can be extremely difficult when you are struggling to keep your basic needs met, but if you do not give up on yourself, there is help to be found.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

One surprising aspect of the eligibility process are the sometimes seemingly arbitrary and narrow windows of ineligibility that exist. For example, an older adult’s monthly Social Security payment may be a few dollars higher than meeting the threshold for receiving substantial SNAP/EBT benefits, but it hardly makes sense to reduce one form of aid to access another. These inconsistencies and thresholds that prevent some people from receiving sufficient benefits are often the focus of legislative progress, and if you notice this taking place or have a personal connection, that could be an opportunity to become more involved in municipal and state political topics regarding public assistance to improve legislators’ understanding of the lived experience of aid recipients.