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Benefits Programs You May Qualify For When Unemployed or Low-Income


Benefits Programs You May Qualify For When Unemployed or Low-Income

Losing your job or having a low income can be really stressful. You may be wondering how you’ll pay your bills and take care of your family. The good news is there are a lot of programs out there that can help. This article talks about some of the main benefits you may be able to get.

Unemployment Benefits

If you lost your job through no fault of your own, you should apply for unemployment benefits through California’s Employment Development Department (EDD). This gives you cash payments every week while you look for a new job. To qualify, you must have earned enough wages at your last job and be physically able to work. You also have to be available for work and actively looking for a new job. You can apply online through EDD’s website here. The fastest way is to use their online application system called Benefit Programs Online.

The amount you get depends on your past wages. Right now the max is $450 per week. So if you made a decent income before, you could get the full amount. The benefits usually last for 26 weeks. But Congress has extended them during the pandemic. How long you can get benefits depends on California’s unemployment rate.

These unemployment benefits are paid for by your former employer. They have to pay into the system to fund it. So don’t feel bad about collecting the benefits. You earned them by working previously!

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

If you don’t qualify for regular unemployment, you may be able to get Pandemic Unemployment Assistance instead. This is for people who are self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers, etc. To get it, you have to show you lost income because of the pandemic. PUA pays up to $450 per week too. It was created by Congress to help people during the COVID crisis. Unfortunately, this program ended in September 2021.

Food Stamps

If you’re struggling to pay for food, definitely apply for food stamps! This program is now called CalFresh in California. It puts money onto a debit card you can use at the grocery store. How much you get depends on your income, expenses, and household size. The average CalFresh benefit is $200 to $250 per household each month. The application process takes about 30 days.

To qualify for food stamps, your income has to be low enough based on federal poverty guidelines. You can make up to 200% of the poverty level. For a family of 3, that’s about $3,000 per month. You can own a house or car and still qualify. There are work requirements for healthy adults unless you have dependents. Apply for CalFresh through your local county social services office.

Medi-Cal Health Coverage

Medi-Cal is California’s Medicaid program. It provides free or low-cost health coverage to low-income residents. To qualify, your income has to be under 138% of the federal poverty level. For an individual, that’s $1,563 per month. For a family of four, it’s $3,249 per month. Children, pregnant women, seniors and disabled people can get higher income limits.

Medi-Cal covers doctor visits, prescriptions, emergency room care, mental health services, addiction treatment and more. There are no monthly premiums. Some people have small copays for prescriptions or doctor visits. But children and pregnant women get full coverage at no cost. You can apply for Medi-Cal any time of year through Covered California or your local county social services agency.

Covered California Health Insurance

If your income is too high for Medi-Cal, check out Covered California. This is where you can get subsidized health insurance and financial help paying for it. The plans cover doctor visits, prescriptions, hospital care and more. All the plans cover pre-existing conditions too. Your household income has to be under 600% of the federal poverty limit to get subsidies through Covered California. That’s $77,000 per year for an individual or $158,000 for a family of four.

Use the Covered CA website to compare plans and enroll. There are four tiers of plans – Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Silver plans have the most generous subsidies. Your premium depends on your income level and which plan you pick. Deductibles and copays vary too. Open enrollment is in the fall each year. But you may qualify for a special enrollment period if you lost job-based coverage.

Utility Bill Assistance

If you’re struggling to pay your utility bills, there are programs that can help. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides money to help cover heating and cooling bills. The funds are distributed through your local county or nonprofit agencies. To qualify, your income has to be below 60% of the state median income level.

In addition, many utility companies offer their own bill assistance programs. These include the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program and the Family Electric Rate Assistance (FERA) program. They provide discounts of 20% or more on your electricity and gas bills. Contact your utility company directly to apply. You can also call 2-1-1 to ask about utility assistance programs in your area.

Housing Assistance

If you’re struggling to pay your rent or mortgage, there are some options to look into. Every city and county has a local housing authority that provides subsidized housing programs. They have public housing developments and Section 8 rental assistance vouchers. Apply through your local housing authority for a spot on the waiting list.

You may also qualify for emergency rental assistance funds due to the pandemic. These programs help cover back rent and future rent payments. Find local agencies distributing rental assistance funds through the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau website here.

For homeowners, mortgage companies have been allowing people to delay payments during the pandemic if they lost income. You can also check if your state or county has mortgage relief funds to help cover payments. Contact your mortgage servicer directly to ask about assistance options.

Cash Assistance

If you have dependent children and very low income, you may qualify for monthly cash assistance. In California, this is called CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids). It provides cash aid and services to eligible families. You qualify if you have a child under 18 and little or no income or assets. The max benefit for a family of three is $785 per month.

Some counties also offer general assistance or general relief programs. These provide cash aid to adults without dependents who can’t work and have no income. Benefits are typically small – around $200 to 300 per month. Check with your county social services agency.

Food Banks

Food banks and food pantries provide free groceries and meals to low-income families. Search online for “food bank near me” or “food pantry near me.” You can go to them as often as they allow—weekly, monthly or every few months. The food is free and no proof of income is required. Many food banks also offer extra produce through the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Other Ways to Get Help

In addition to government programs, there are nonprofits in every community that can help. Call 2-1-1 or visit to find local groups that assist with bills, housing, food, job training, and more. Some provide one-time emergency help while others offer ongoing support.

Churches and faith groups often have assistance funds as well. Reach out to local congregations in your area to see what support they can provide. They may help with food, clothing, utilities, housing costs and other essentials.

Lastly, don’t forget about family, friends, and social networks. Let people know you’re going through a tough time. Often people want to help but don’t know how. They may be able to provide meals, job leads, donations or moral support.

Losing a job or income source can be devastating. But remember you’re not alone. There are many public and private programs here to help get you through this challenging time. Reach out to access the resources and benefits available to you. They can ease your stress and help you get back on your feet again.


[1] California Employment Development Department
[2] Assistance for Unemployed California Residents

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