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I’ve written about why shame is often attached to utilizing social welfare programs.

This post digs more deeply into truths we can recognize and mindsets we can embrace to help protect ourselves from that shame while we use these programs designed to help us.

We all use Social welfare programs

It’s interesting that we often have a negative reaction even to the name “social welfare”, generally because we’ve been socialized to equate that with being poor and in need, with all the negative connotations that accompany that.

The reality is that while only the programs for low-income people are generally labeled as such, all walks of society actually benefit from programs that fit under this title.

Public goods, like parks and public transportation networks, are designed for the welfare of our society.

Schools and other community institutions are also designed for social welfare, as living in a community of educated adults helps society keep functioning, and that’s only found by educating all children.

public schooling is a social welfare program, just like many other benefits we don’t think about too often.

Taxes often have loopholes that are designed to contribute to social welfare by making exceptions for certain expenses, donations, activities, and decisions.

Tax credits are a form of social welfare program, as were mortgage rebates, and most other exceptions or credits.

The recent stimulus packages were all forms of social welfare as well.

Federal college loans are also a form of social welfare, as well as most other government loans out there.

The main difference is that those other programs are generally nested inside of taxes, or are recognized as part of an attempt to “better oneself”.

Even though they are designed with similar intent(giving Americans opportunities) they don’t carry the same stigma as the survival-associated social welfare programs like SNAP, LIHEAP, SSDI, SSI, Medicaid, and TANF.

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Why applying for these supports feels so hard

The low-income programs are not available through a tax-based model because most low-income people do not need to file taxes, and because many of these programs are there for when emergencies happen, which generally don’t line up with tax season.

If you would normally pay taxes(some of us are too poor to even need to file), you wouldn’t want to wait until then to get the support you need. As I mentioned, many folks who are eligible for these programs can be so low-income that they don’t need to file taxes(I know I don’t unless I earn money, as opposed to collecting my SSDI benefits).

Paperwork for the government is never fun and easy – so recognize going in that this isn’t a walk in the park.

You need to apply for these programs when you recognize that you’re in a financial crisis.

These are stressful times.

Times of crisis tend to make being organized more challenging, all interactions more stressful, and muddles thought processes and our ability to plan.

In other words, you need to apply for social welfare support, by definition, when you are already in a stressful and challenging time period.

To make matters worse, many of these programs are centered through a different government department or program.

Each need-based program has slightly different requirements and often has confusingly worded rules.

These are also all programs that only support poor people, and so are frequently targeted for budget cuts.

Due to limited funding and many people needing the services, there also tend to be relatively long waits during each step, and slow response times.

If that isn’t a setup for disaster, I don’t know what is.

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Things to remember when you apply

All of this is really frustrating and challenging, so let’s talk about getting through it all.

The biggest thing is your mindset when you go into this. You want to be able to approach this realistically and keep a level head when things get stressful.

Just like any other time you participate in a government process(like filing taxes or renewing your driver’s license), expect there to be waits, annoyance, and less-than-polite people.

Understand that these applications won’t be emotionally easy, as you are going to be sharing painful information(either details on the impact your disability has on your life, or your current financial situation). It’s going to hurt to see it all on paper(or on-screen).

If you were doing well, you wouldn’t be applying for these programs.

Unfortunately, many people whose job should be to support and guide you through your application view themselves as the guards and gatekeepers of the program instead.

Make sure that you provide everything you possibly can in the form requested whenever you fill out an application.

Even if it takes an extra day or two, providing precisely what is requested increases your chances of having your application accepted the first time, and the processing of your application is often the step that takes the longest.

I also have learned that usually, even when I think I have everything they need, there always seems to be something that they won’t accept or isn’t complete enough, so I have to come back or mail or fax or (if I’m incredibly lucky) email them this one last piece of information.

This is normal. Again, they tend to be very precise in their requirements and you just need to do things the way they insist if at all possible.

Recognize that in this process the people who are supposed to be helping you view themselves as the gatekeepers and you as a potential liar.

You need to document everything and provide exactly the information they want.

If you don’t do things exactly the way they want you to, you may get rejected.

Be aware that while this is very important for you, these people are processing this type of information all day, every day.

Just like any job, information may get misplaced or lost.

In fact, since these folks are government employees and generally in departments that are not well-funded, you can expect that something is likely to go wrong at some point in the process.

If you go in expecting and anticipating this challenge, your surprises are more likely to be pleasant ones.

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Things to remember after your initial application

Recognize that you can do everything right and still be rejected. It isn’t personal. All of this is a big system and you are just a small cog.

If somebody doesn’t like an answer, you can be rejected.

Sometimes that rejection is permanent, but more often it’s about something not being filed or filled out appropriately or a piece of information being missed.

Very often you can appeal or reapply, and it’s often in your best interest to do so. Don’t give up!

Be aware that each program operates under its own schedule and the wait time can be disturbingly long.

Whatever program(s) you apply for, try to get an idea of when you should hear back!

As an example, last year I applied for LIHEAP later than usual(at the end of October rather than the beginning), and because they process the applications in the order received I didn’t hear anything from them until late February and didn’t actually get coverage until May.

I hope that’s an exception rather than the rule, but it’s important to know.

If your situation becomes more urgent, you sometimes can call the organization and either confirm your status or request that they accelerate your application. There are no guarantees, but sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

For example, each time I called LIHEAP to try to check on my status, the recording mentioned that if you were in danger of having your power shut off, let them know so they could escalate your claim.

There are ways to push on the systems if necessary.

Use your best judgment because they all involve more requests and detailed explanations. The more details you have, the better.

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Self-care during the application process

For most of us considering applying for any of the social welfare programs, we’re doing so because we need to, not because we want to.

We need to survive, we want some independence, and/or we can’t afford live without it.

Getting these supports is our new job because we can’t do “regular work”. Unfortunately, the system is still broken and so we’re facing an uphill battle, both internally and externally.

Because these applications are both so important and often so emotionally damaging, you’re going to need some extra support along the way.

And you’re going to give it to yourself!

If you need to, keep reminding yourself that, as I’ve mentioned, the system itself is pretty broken and painful to deal with.

When a problem happens, it’s more likely than not that it’s not your fault.

These programs can be frustrating, but they are designed to help you.

Unfortunately, the only way to get through this is to recognize that even though the issue isn’t your fault, it’s still your responsibility to fix it.

If you don’t get the support you need, the government doesn’t care – only you do.

Even though you didn’t cause the problem, it’s still your job to fix it because nobody else will do it for you.

To protect yourself, do your best to make these calls when your thoughts are relatively clear and when you’ve got some time to spare. Most of these offices may have long hold times, broken voicemail systems, minimal control over who you speak to, and other challenges.

Before you call, try to have a calm mindset and a fun distraction to help you get through the wait(as an example, I sometimes color while I’m on the phone, or play a game that I can easily pause).

Expect annoying hold noises/music. Also, sometimes their hold is completely silent so you aren’t sure if they’re still there.

You also want to have all the documentation you need with you(or in easy reach), because once you do get through they often want to get you off the phone as soon as possible because they know they have many other folks trying to get through.

Once you finish your call(or other tasks), be sure to reward yourself for getting it done.

Don’t wait to reward yourself until after you get it all done because there is so much uncertainty so often.

Reward yourself in some way for each task you’ve taken forward.

Being one step closer to getting your support is worth celebrating!

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Focus on your goals

Focus on the end result the program will get you. While generally, they provide you money or its equivalent, focusing on the end goal may help you keep going.

As an example, applying for SNAP lets you better nourish yourself, and LIHEAP basically reduces or removes your heating bills, letting you focus your money elsewhere.

It’s much easier to get there if you keep yourself focused on your goal

If you start getting frustrated, remind yourself why you’re doing it – so you can eat better, or keep the heat going, or live independently.

Whatever it is that specific program will do for you, focus on that outcome when you are fighting for it, and if you start to feel discouraged.

Since these programs will generally cover you for a year or more once you get on, it’s worth the effort to ensure that you get the help you need and deserve.

Above all, realize that for the moment, utilizing these programs is your job – and you deserve credit for recognizing your own needs and limitations.

Once you’ve got these supports, you can focus on healing yourself and figuring out your next steps in managing or improving your life.

You have every right to these supports(you proved that in your application process), and using them is getting you one step closer to a better life!

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    1. It’s not easy, but it can be worth it! Also, if you are applying for SSDI, you want to start the process as soon as possible after you stop working because your payments are often based on the average of your income over the previous 10 years! My apI cation went relatively smoothly, but a lot of pieces have become more challenging. I have several posts on the process in here!

  1. I felt a tremendous amount of shame when applying for disability benefits. It took me two years after leaving my job to apply for benefits, which in hindsight feels really stupid because I really could have used that money. Thanks for sharing advice and for helping to destigmatize this experience

    1. Jason, I get it! I mainly was able to apply as quickly as I could because I had multiple people encouraging me to take that step. That still didn’t make it emotionally easy. I hate how stigmatizing and stigmatized this process is, and I hope you feel better about being on the programs now! The whole process isn’t easy, but it’s so important to just keep going and get the help we need, so we can keep ourselves moving closer to better health!

  2. I hadn’t thought about how tax “loop-holes” are a form of social welfare. The rich take pride in taking advantage of these, the more the better. Anyone who needs help should not feel shame when those who don’t need it are taking advantage of the support with abandon.

    1. Katie – exactly my point! Every discount or break that tax code allows is intended to be to help the greater good in some way, shape, or form. While that hasn’t always been the reality, that is the idealized reason for the taxes being the way they are. Government benefits programs are another social good, intended as a way for those of us who hit on hard times to still be able to survive while we try to get back on our feet. Unfortunately, it’s been stigmatized and so many of us pay that price in the form of shame or fear during already stressful times. Let’s keep working together to destigmatize this, because we all deserve to be treated fairly.

    1. Thank you! Deciding to ask for help is often hard -and unfortunately these programs are designed in such a way that as an applicant, the process reinforces those feelings of worthlessness and failure. We deserve better treatment, and I’m hoping that changes get made so that it doesn’t stay this way. However, until it does, we need to deal with it – and not getting the benefits we need isn’t the way.

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