I received some emails from friends and acquaintances asking about my life in the United States. So this post is meant to be the response for that requests and provide a short brief conditions on how a student with family can live and survive in the US – with a tight financial situation and still be happy with it
I have number of Indonesian friends who are living, studying, and working in the United States, but I know only a few that have a condition like us. My husband and I, young married couple with kids, from middle class family, with only one source of income (scholarship funding), and struggling to make a living for our own. I understand the financial burden of students who decided to being apart from their love ones. But in my case sometimes all you have to do is simply DO IT since there is always a way to survive. After all this is the Land of Opportunities (read: the United States). Everything is possible and no one should be discriminated because of their identities.
When we came to the US in 2010, my husband (Aradea Hakim) was asked by one of his friends: “Ara, are you sure that you can cover all your family’s needs in there? Because scholarship stipend is very tight, I myself as a single person has a very tight monthly budget to cover the rent, car insurance, fuel, electricity, Internet and TV bills, phone, groceries, etc..etc…, I think your wife should find a job or looking for a Master degree here so that you both can have two incomes” – A friend, 2010 –
Clearly our friend is very concerned about our condition here–a PhD student with 3 dependents who rely only one single source of income! But, hey, we are in the USA, remember? There are many benefits for low-income family from federal or state government. The key is that we have to find it ourselves. And every states have a different policy and benefits available for their residents.
I just want to let you know, that the benefits are available for you and your family. The best way to find it is through browsing into government websites (usually identify with [dot]gov) or simply visit public service offices, community heath center, city hall, library, among others, where most of the informational brochures about the benefits are available. Grab all the information you need and do not hesitate to contact the officials and remember that one information can lead to another.
The category of low-income family is calculated by dividing the household’s annual income (before taxes) with the number of persons in the family (household size). This number will be further categorized in Federal Poverty Guidelines (annually renewed) and used in calculating different amount of benefits. Those who are eligible must also meet the criteria based on: citizenship status, health or physical condition (disabled, pregnant, HIV, etc), age group (children, senior > 65 years old, etc), and other general requirements which are different for each benefits. You should check your eligibility for each benefits, usually in the websites in which there is a tool for screening eligibility before you can apply to the appropriate program. When visiting social security or benefits’ office, do not forget to bring all necessary documents (proof of ID and proof of income) and the person-in-charge will be available for consultations.
As I said earlier, different States have different benefit policies available. For those who live in the State of Massachusetts, the following information might be helpful.
Food – Woman, Infant, and Children (WIC). The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – better known as the WIC Program – serves to safeguard the health of low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diet. This is the first benefit that I obtained when we moved here. Every month me (first as a breastfeeding woman and second as a pregnant woman) and my sons (after 6 months old) received around $60-70 vouchers of the healthy foods listed on this program. Besides WIC, there is also SNAP food benefits or known as Food Stamp. Unlike WIC, only US citizen can received food stamps.
Health Insurance – The federal governments Health Resources and Services Administration provides free healthcare to low income families throughout all 50 states. Low income families and individuals can stop by participating clinics to get their medical needs. Applying for this type of insurance is easy and if you don’t get the insurance because of the immigration status, usually you would be still eligible for free medical visits, with little or no cost at all. Moreoever, in Massachusetts there are also MassHealth and Health Safety Net.
Heating – The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assists eligible low income households with their heating and cooling energy costs, and, if the state chooses, to weatherize homes. During winter time (starting November 1st until April 30th) the heating bills can double or triple the usual amount. For example, during summer the gas bill is only $15-$20 per month (only for the stove/cooking), and by winter it can reach up to around $120/ month! With this assistance, the government will pay portions (or all) of the heating bill.
Public Housing – Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH). If you are lucky, you can get a subsidized housing in a very good condition in a short queue. Under this program, usually you only need to pay 40% off from what you have to pay in normal price to the landlord or private management.
Cell Phone – Lifeline. The government has been very thoughtful to their low-income residents in providing call emergency service. Those who currently enrolled in government programs (depends to each state, check yours in here) like MassHealth can received one decent cell phone per household with Free 250 minutes talk and text every month.
Early Childhood Education – PACE. Public school in US is free (1st grade to 12th grade), but preschool and kindergarten are mostly not. Parents have to pay at least $700-$900 for preschool/ kindergarten in the monthly basis. But then again, no need to worry! Since education is fundamental, government really pays attention to early childhood education and try their best so every child can go to school and get a proper knowledge so they won’t be left behind once they entering the public school. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, there is PACE (People Acting In Community Endeavors) that provides many programs dedicated to educate and facilitate low income families. The program for children and family including, for instances, Head Start provides a free family center child development program for children ages 3-5 for eligible low income families.
Family Center is a family support and literacy program. Always check similarly established center in your city. Usually the Center offers various services designed to provide parents and families with the support and resources they need to learn new skills, enhance family interactions, and empower them to reach their full potential. All services are free.
Tax Service – Usually during tax reporting season (March-April), there is VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) who offers free service to file your tax return. This service is very beneficial since the tax system is very complicated and different forms will affect the total tax due. Also, there will be a special credit deduction for low income family.
There are other programs that might be available in other State too which are unknown to me who live in Massachusetts. So don’t worry about living abroad – it will broaden your knowledge and enrich your experience. I suspect that, based on my case, even if it is hard, it would be a memorable journey that your family will embrace one day!
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