Government Help for Single Parents
If you’re a single parent, you’re not alone. Many women and men in the United States are raising children by themselves while they’re also striving to accomplish their personal and professional goals. Recognizing that life can sometimes be financially difficult for these parents and their families, the federal government and your state government provide a number of programs designed to make some of the necessities of life more affordable in the short term, until you can get back on your feet again.
For example, some of the programs that help you pay for food or housing can help free up money you can use toward reducing your outstanding debt. Then, as what you owe on credit cards and other unpaid bills drops, you’ll have more of your own money to spend on food and housing and less need for government help to keep your budget balanced.
It can be well worth the time and effort it takes to find out more about specific assistance programs that may make a difference in your life, especially in areas like food, education, housing, and health insurance programs as well as credits that can reduce the amount of income tax you owe.
Food on the Table
Two food programs that it may pay to investigate are best known by their acronyms: SNAP and WIC. Money to pay for them is granted to each of the states through the Food and Nutrition Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. If you qualify, based on your income, you receive an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card similar to a bank ATM card. Each month it is loaded with the amount you qualify for, and you can use it in grocery stores or other food retailers, including farmers markets, to buy groceries. There are some restrictions on what you can pay for with the card, including anything considered non-food. You can find more about the program, including how to apply, at www.fns.usda.gov/snap.
And, if you are a single mother, you may qualify for WIC, which stands for Women, Infants, and Children. WIC gives federal grants to individual states to provide healthful food and healthcare referrals to eligible new mothers, pregnant women, and children up to age five. There’s no charge for any of the WIC services. If you go to www.fns.usda.gov/wic/ you can use a prescreening tool to get a preliminary reading on whether you or your children are eligible for help, identify the location of an office near you, and find out how to apply. Eligibility is linked to income, based on the size of your household, state residency and a nutrition assessment.
Help With Housing
Based on your gross income and the size of your family, you may be eligible for help in securing public housing. You should start by contacting your local public housing agency (PHA). You can find the address and phone number of the office serving your county using the interactive map on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website. The HUD site is also a good source for background information about public housing, including programs such as Housing Choice Vouchers, and how to file housing discrimination complaints.
HUD can also assist in some cases with your current mortgage. They are familiar with existing programs that may allow you to refinance to help make the payment more affordable. To find out more contact HUD directly.
Paying for Healthcare
Based on your income, your family may be eligible for healthcare coverage through the shared federal-state Medicaid program or through CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP provides healthcare coverage to millions of children whose families don’t qualify for Medicaid but who can’t afford private health insurance either. Every state runs its own CHIP program and determines the way in which it will be designed by choosing among the alternatives the federal government offers.
Medicaid provides medical and dental care to children from birth to age 6 free of charge if their family qualifies to participate in the program based on their income.
Eligibility for CHIP and the benefits it provides vary by state, as do the premiums you pay and any out-of-pocket costs you may be responsible for. But every state’s program provides free preventative care, including immunizations, regular check-ups, hospital stays, and dental care.
To find out how to apply for either program, you can call 877-543-7669 toll-free for a referral to an office in your state or you can find your local office using the interactive map at http://www.insurekidsnow.gov/state/index.html.
Using Tax Credits
If you have earned income and file a federal tax return, you may be able to reduce the tax you owe by qualifying for a number of tax credits. In fact, some — though not all — tax credits are refundable, which means that you may get money back from the government if the credits for which you are eligible reduce the tax you owe to less than $0. The refund is the difference between $0 and the credit-reduced amount, up to the limit that applies.
Eligibility for nearly all tax credits is based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which you calculate on the form you use to file your taxes. Each credit also has its own set of rules, which are explained in IRS Publications, and most require you to file a separate form along with your other tax documents.
If you are a parent, you may be eligible for a child tax credit for each eligible child in addition to the exemption you take for the child. You may also be entitled to a credit for a percentage of the amount you pay for childcare for kids younger than 13. As a student, you may also qualify for education credits, including the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit.
In addition, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is available if you work but earn less than the federal government’s ceiling for your filing status. Qualifying and applying for the EITC are complicated, but can be worth the trouble. You can take advantage of the IRS VITA program that provides trained volunteers who offer free tax preparation assistance at various locations around the country.
To find the closest site, call 800-906-9887. Consult with your tax preparer for additional information and as always check the IRS site at www.irs.gov.
While you may not qualify for all of the assistance these government programs can provide, it’s well worth your time to investigate them. Following up can make a major difference to you and your children.