09 November 2009

Unemployment and Welfare in the USA

I was asked if I could say a bit about welfare and unemployment benefits in the United States.  It's tempting to say that there are none, but that's not actually true.  The details vary a bit from state to state, so the following is specific to Iowa, with other states being roughly similar.

First, unemployment:  In all states, one may only receive unemployment benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks.  It takes 2-3 weeks to process the initial claim.  Afterwards, one must file a weekly claim.  In Iowa, this is done by calling an automated phone system.  Unemployment benefit recipients are required to apply for a minimum of two jobs each week that they receive unemployment and are not allowed to reject any job offer.  The amount paid is based on the recipient's earnings for the 52 weeks prior to filing an initial claim.  When you apply for unemployment, any employer you've had during the previous 52 weeks has the right to contest your claim.  If they can prove that you were let go because of work performance issues, your claim will be rejected.

If you haven't found work by the end of your 26 weeks and you have dependent children, you can apply for welfare.  Most states have moved to "Workfare".  The goal is to get recipients off of welfare as soon as possible.  Again, you have to apply for a minimum of two jobs every week or be in some sort of training programme. As with unemployment benefit, recipients are not allowed to refuse any offer of employment.  Any job, any hours, at any pay.  In Iowa, the average monthly cash benefit is $318/month.  There is also food assistance, called food stamps.  Cash benefit and food stamps are now paid via a card, like a bank card, that is used in stores and at ATMs.  The cash benefit is meant to cover all non-food expenses.  It comes nowhere near doing so.  There is a lifetime limit of 60 months of being on welfare.

There are some subsidised housing programmes.  Local housing authorities usually have some rental units of their own and there is a federal rental assistance programme called Section 8, that pays a portion of a recipient's rent on privately rented accommodation (paid directly to the landlord).  In a rural area, the wait for Section 8 assistance is usually no more than a few months.  In urban areas, the wait for housing assistance can be years.  I know of no federal assistance with mortgage payments for home owners who find themselves in long-term difficulties.

Medicaid is the federal medical assistance programme for the poor.  Generally, if you qualify for Workfare in your state, you will receive Medicaid.  In rural areas, this isn't much of a problem, but in urban areas, finding a doctor can be difficult.  Doctors are only required to accept a small number of Medicaid patients.  Dentists are not required to accept any, so dental care is often impossible to find.

The key thing about all of the above (except unemployment benefits) is that they are only for families with dependent children.  Childless adults who aren't disabled are pretty much screwed.  And disability benefit is an extremely difficult thing to acquire in the United States.


  1. Jesus H Christ, makes you proud to be British..........

    (No offence Montana)

  2. Sorry, that should have been...

    "No offense Montana"!

  3. Thanks, Montana - that's rather bleak! And still Republicans moan about 'welfare queens' living off the bounty of the state.

    The amount paid is based on the recipient's earnings for the 52 weeks prior to filing an initial claim.

    As I recall, the amount is capped at something rather low - when I was laid off there, it wasn't even close to covering my mortgage payment.

    Additionally, the utility companies have no qualms about cutting off your electricity, gas and water if you can't pay the bills.

  4. My christ. This might be a stupid question, but - if you don't have kids and don't get any job offers (or don't get an offer that covers rent), um, where do people live? How do they eat?

    Thank you, Montana. And I say again, my christ...

  5. That really is quite shocking. If you dont have kids and you lose your job life must get pretty interesting... Though the Tories can probably match this within two parliaments, I expect.

    Looking at the US does seem to be a good guide to the future Britain under the Tories in general, if they can they will strip us down to the US style skeleton state in no time. The BBC and the NHS are probably first in line. US healthcare providers are probably already having a friendly word in the ear of our darling Dave...

  6. Jay,

    it's on its way here.

    Just take a look at the biographies of the Conservative 'bright young things'- Gove, Hannan et al and prepare to leave the country accordingly.

  7. shudders

    Would I be able to get Canadian citizenship via adoption at my age?

  8. Thanks very much Montana - a clear and depressing exposition.

  9. Wow Montana thanks for this. But my god! It is so shocking. I never realised it was this bad. I echo the fears of the Tories - although Labour are going that way too (just a bit more slowly than the Tories would).

    I seriously have to ask, as Philippa has, how do people eat if they are out of work for longer than they get welfare for? Do people starve? Is that why the tent cities? Oh so many questions sorry but it really has shocked me to read that.

  10. Jay / 13thDuke
    The DofH have been already paying ££billions to USA heaklth giant United Health (UK) in consultancy fees for years, in areas such as PFI, World Class Commissioning and Personalised Health Budgets.

    We are already witnessing the biggest shake up in health and social care since Bevan. Whereas ideas such as WCC and PHB were initiated as a way of personalising care only a year or so ago, targetting specific needs, and allowing clinicans to dictate services rather tha Provider Services business managers, remember these ideas were concocted in a time of euphoria and beleif in our economy.

    Now some major programmes already underway, sanctioned at the highest level by the DofH, and are being redrafted on the hoof, as I write, to make budgetary cuts in NHS of 10% - 15% per anum. Millions in each PCT. Just when Care Homes, GPs, Provider Services, Social Services, mental health workers, third sector and Drug Agancies are being told to work much closer together - in itself no bad thing, the SHAs and County Councils are being told "there is no Plan B."

    So... while there is still some considerable autonomy in all this, the last thing we need now is a load of etonion buffoons baying for Expert consultnts' advise while they kick the shit out of public services workers who've had it far too easy far too long.

    And I am already reserving a new batch of contempt for the f@ckers about to vote them in, and then come on CiF and rationalise it, (to add to that loathing already afforded soulless b@stards like Patricia Hewitt.)

    At least CiF is finally publishing Allyson Pollock, a voice of great and rare authority in the Great Public Finance Rip-off.

    But times are getting tougher for sure. And I don't think personalised - atomised - services will be exactly the abundant low hanging fruit of democracy in social care that they were once envisaged as being...

  11. Montana

    Sounds very grim -and as others have said we are looking at the erosion of what's left of public services here. Times are not good and I think they will get worse.

  12. Philippa

    If they don't get a job offer within the 26 weeks, they struggle. Some end up living on the streets, some move in with a friend or relative (if possible). In urban areas, there are missions and homeless shelters, but these are almost always full and many are run by evangelical religious organisations and have strict rules for being allowed to stay there. Usually, shelters are large rooms full of cots. There is little or no privacy and 'residents' must be out of the shelter during the day -- often from @ 8 a.m. to anywhere from 7 to 9 p.m. And some of them require participation in religious services, bible studies, etc.

    As Thauma said, utilities don't have much sympathy with people who get behind on their bills. In Iowa, the utility that provides your heat cannot shut you off if the temperature is likely to be below freezing, so electricity isn't likely to be shut off during December through February, sometimes even November and March (since, even if you have natural gas heat, you need electricity for the thermostat). Iowa also has some heat energy assistance and, if you receive it, you cannot have your heat turned off from 1 November through 31 March. Not all states have such protections.

  13. A really bleak picture there, Montana. Thanks for posting this. And I thought people had it bad in the UK, when comparing it to the french system.

  14. Bitterweed, cheers for that. (cheers also for the article Montana)

    The only answer is clearly emigrating or drink.

  15. Nice piece, Montana.

    The bit I liked was welfare recipients not being able to reject a job offer. That's not going to be exploited by employers looking for cheap labour, is it?!

  16. Hank, it's shit. Of course there are ways around it, such as only applying for jobs that you know you'll never get until something that looks good comes up - and for similar reasons you wouldn't let on that you'd applied for it.

    Microbiologist with 30 years' experience in quantum physics wanted etc. (Dot excluded from that one!)

  17. It actually sounds fairly similar to the welfare system here in Greece. Here you can always get free medical and dental treatment (although its very basic and often a shit eservice).. But the rest is the same.. Of course, Greece isn't a country with the same kind of economy as the States.. still.. that doesn't excuse how shit the system is here either...

  18. You can fudge a bit on the jobs you've applied for when you're on unemployment, but it's much harder to do when you're on welfare, because they're fairly aggressive about verifying the contacts you list.

    If you people would figure out some way of getting me residency in Britain, I'd be more than happy to help out in the revolution you guys are going to need to have to avoid becoming like this place.

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  20. Another mad thing about the unemployment system in the US that I remember (although I suspect it may be similar in the UK in this respect) is that it punishes you for trying to complete an education.

    I was laid off when I was 18 or 19 from a full-time job that I had been using to fund my way through univeristy: working during the day and doing my courses at night, and the coursework on weekends. At the time of the redundancy, I had 5 courses to go to complete my degree; 3 or 4 were considered a full-time courseload, but I reckoned I could do it in one three-month semester and finish the degree, therefore making myself infinitely more employable and much less likely to be a future burden on the system.

    The unemployment bureau told me that if I was not immediately available for full-time work, I did not qualify for benefits.

    I told them I would drop the (expensive) uni courses if a job offer was made, of course. Amazingly, no job offer was forthcoming in that time and I managed to finish the degree and then start another job almost the next day.

  21. How could you lot sneak off here and I didn't know it ?

  22. MW - on the basis of your picture in the Guardian , I will arrange for you to have residency immediately - excuse insomniac ramblings... really like the ' on this day ' thread too !

  23. Hey IanMiddx! Didn't realise you'd popped in over here -- this place only gets used occasionally. Probably time someone put up a new thread here, isn't it? Welcome to the UT & UT2 -- we're over on the Daily Chat thread most of the time.