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.