Public librarians know this instinctively, but this year, a report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future” [www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Philadelphia_Research_Initiative/Philadelphia-Library-City.pdf] makes it plain: Library use has risen substantially because of the recession. Between 2005 and 2011, library visits in the 15 cities studied rose an average of 6%. In several cities, library use went up more than 20% during this period. As cities across the nation have cut budgets as a result of the recession, citizens have turned to the library for help with a variety of issues, even for information that used to be handled by other city agencies.
In effect, the report says, the library is fulfilling a “shadow mandate,” addressing the social service needs of patrons in addition to checking out books. The report states that city libraries have become “multipurpose community centers, offering business services, tax assistance, safe havens for children after school, and places where immigrants can learn English.”
In addition, we know that libraries have become the de facto provider of free internet access, as noted in “Opportunity for All: How Library Policies and Practices Impact Public Internet Access [www.imls.gov/assets/1/AssetManager/OppForAll2.pdf], prepared by the University of Washington Information School and the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2010. “As the nation struggled through a historic recession,” the study says, “nearly one-third of the U.S. population over the age of 14 used library Internet computers and those in poverty relied on these resources even more.”
Of course, library budgets have not increased to cover the costs of providing computer access and social services for our low-income patrons. Fortunately, there are free web resources available to help us fulfill our “shadow mandate.”
Dan McLaughlin, reference librarian at the Pasadena Public Library in California, notes that assistance providers for the urgent welfare needs of patrons are usually locally based. “These websites tend to be pretty unique to each community, or are countywide agencies,” he says.
Still, local assistance for education, job training, healthcare, and food often flows down from the federal government. It is sometimes available to qualifying noncitizens as well as those born here. Here are some national-level directories that can point to benefits available from every level of government.
Before patrons in need go anywhere else, have them stop off at Benefits.gov. Here, an online questionnaire (yes, we will have to help them get online and access the site) points our patrons toward government benefits for which they might be eligible. Users may also browse benefits by state or category. Here is the same site in Spanish: http://es.benefits.gov.
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is a not-for-profit advocacy group for older Americans and the organizations that serve them. “Many adults over 55 need help paying for prescription drugs, health care, utilities, and other basic needs,” the counsel writes. adding, “There are over 2,000 federal, state and private benefits programs available to help.” NCOA has created this online questionnaire to help seniors identify benefits that could help to cover the costs of everyday expenses.
Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance
This online directory of grants and loans is mostly aimed at local governments and federally recognized Native American tribal governments. Still, individuals may be eligible for some of the assistance offered here, especially if they know how to write a grant proposal!
Healthcare and Insurance
The future of the Affordable Care Act is in flux. Still, people get sick and the cost of healthcare remains very high. We can help our low-income patrons to access healthcare and insurance through these sites.
Insure Kids Now
The Medicaid program, in place since 1965, provides health coverage for children in families at or slightly above the federal poverty level (FPL). The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (CHIPRA) brought low or no-cost coverage to families with incomes up to $45,000 for kids as old as 19. Low-income patrons with children can visit this site to see if they qualify for the program, or they can call 877-Kids-Now (877-543-7669).
Very-low-income adult citizens (and disabled people and families at or near the federal poverty level) can apply for health benefits paid for by Medicaid, the federal healthcare program. Medicaid is administered by the states; visit your particular state health or family services department to apply.
Get Affordable Health Care
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) points the way to hospitals and healthcare centers that provide free or low-cost services to those whose incomes are at or near the federal poverty level. Search by address or browse by state and county to find nearby federally financed healthcare centers.
This nonprofit organization, founded in 1997 by Dr. Richard Sagalland and Libby Overly, who has a Master of Social Work, runs a database that can connect disadvantaged patients with the Patient Assistance Programs (PAPs) run by pharmaceutical companies. Patrons can search the site to find links for discounted medications and disease-based information and assistance.
“Although related, food insecurity and poverty are not the same,” notes the website “Feeding America” [http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/hunger-and-poverty-statistics.aspx]. “Unemployment rather than poverty is a stronger predictor of food insecurity.”
The recession has left many of our patrons unemployed and therefore in danger of not having enough food to eat. These sites may help to fill their bellies.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the benefit formerly known as “food stamps.” SNAP funds are distributed through states and county health or family services departments. Patrons can find their local office here: www.fns.usda.gov/snap/outreach/map.htm. En español: www.fns.usda.gov/snap/outreach/sp-map.htm . Those who wonder if they might be eligible for SNAP benefits can fill out the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)Pre-Screening Eligibility Tool: www.snap-step1.usda.gov/fns. In Spanish: www.snap-step1.usda.gov/fns/index_es.jsp.
Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
Low-income mothers and their children up to age 5 may be eligible for food and healthcare referrals through the WIC program, which offers federal grants to states for this purpose. Find state agencies in English [www.fns.usda.gov/wic/Contacts/ContactsMenu.HTM] or Spanish [www.fns.usda.gov/wic/Contacts/sp-ContactsMenu.HTM] Those who wonder if they are eligible for WIC can fill out the prescreening tool in English, Spanish, or Chinese: https://stars.fns.usda.gov/wps/pages/start.jsf.
Patrons who need emergency food assistance can visit the National Hunger Clearinghouse, which collates and distributes information about food pantries and other supportive agencies and programs. Or, they can call the toll-free National Hunger Hotline at 866-3-HUNGRY or 877-8-HAMBRE. They will be directed to local emergency food resources.
Manage Monthly Bills
Who couldn’t use help with those recurring expenses?
Low Energy Home Energy Assistance Plan (LIHEAP) State Agencies
Do you have patrons who have trouble paying their heating or cooling bills? Homes that are too hot or cold can be dangerous, especially to children under the age of 6 or the elderly. The LIHEAP program provides federal funds for distribution by states. Find your state’s LIHEAP office on this site, or call 866-674-6327.
The global nonprofit One Economy Corp. aims to use technology to bring financial security and independence to disadvantaged people. Visit the Beehive page to get help with all kinds of life skills, including attending to health issues, finding a job, filing taxes, learning how to manage money, and even buying a house. This cheerful site even offers tips for dealing with home foreclosure. In Spanish: www.thebeehive.org/es.
A result (and also a cause!) of the current recession is mortgage dysfunction. Many people are losing their houses because they can’t make the payments. Visit these sites to find information about avoiding foreclosure.
Making Home Affordable
This is the Obama administration program to help distressed mortgage holders stay in their homes through a variety of means, including refinancing and mortgage modifications.
Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPV)
Patrons who are struggling with their mortgages can chat online or call the Homeowner’s HOPE Hotline at 888-995-HOPE (4673) to talk with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-approved counselor. There is no charge to have HPV act as a liaison between distressed home owners and their mortgage companies. Counseling is available in 170 languages.
Federal Reserve Consumer Help
Has your bank treated you unfairly, perhaps by dragging its feet on your load modification approved through the Making Home Affordable Act? Has it lost your documents or misattributed your payments? File a complaint with the Federal Reserve with this online form.
Americans are living longer than ever, and some of these older people are running low on cash. Use these sites to ease the burden of those underfunded retirement years.
The U.S. Administration on Aging offers this service to help older adults and their families find local help with anything from Alzheimer’s disease to long-term care facilities. The agency also has counselors available by phone at 800-677-1116.
Find a Meal: Meals on Wheels
Visit this page on the not-for-profit Meals On Wheels Association of America site to find local providers of daily meals delivered to senior citizens.
Home Equity Advisor
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) offers advice to seniors who may be “house rich but cash poor,” that is, they own houses but lack income. A reverse mortgage may be a good solution. The Home Equity Advisor helps older homeowners analyze their situation and explore options. En español: http://es.homeequityadvisor.org.
Some of our disadvantaged patrons may have problems with their immigration status. They can find information and help with these sites.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Immigrants can visit USCIS to apply for a green card or to learn how to help relatives immigrate to the United States. Sign up for case updates and take a practice Naturalization Test here, too. In Spanish: www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis-es.
Free Legal Service Providers
Do you have patrons who need legal help with their immigration status but have no money to pay for it? The Department of Justice runs the Legal Orientation and Pro Bono Program that helps noncitizens who appear before Immigration Courts and Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Search this nationwide directory to find free legal counsel near you. Notice that both Alaska and Iowa are devoid of pro bono immigration attorneys.
All the above services are available to our patrons. How? That’s right: over the internet! But what if our library budgets are too strained to provide a fast connection for our public? That’s when we apply for help through the E-Rate program.
Schools and Libraries (E-Rate)
Since 1997, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has collected a universal service fee from telecommunication providers. Some of this money is designated to help schools and libraries get internet access at reduced rates. This site, from the Universal Service Administrative Co., a nonprofit charged with distributing these funds, offers instructions and funding applications.
Since its inception, applications to the E-Rate program have risen 108%. Unfortunately, funding for the program has not kept pace with demand. Requests for funds are now double the amount available. Also, E-Rate funding comes with restrictions, most notably the requirement that all public internet access be restricted with blocking software.
Librarian Dan McLaughlin says that in his experience, government websites can be confusing, even for information professionals. “There seems to be an inverse correlation between the importance of the website and the quality of its web design.”
And so, our job is not only to help our low-income patrons to find government benefit information. “With this type of patron, it becomes a matter of assisting them in navigating through the websites,” says McLaughlin.
For librarians, helping patrons to find and parse information is not just our “shadow mandate.” Isn’t that where our core value lies?