From school supplies to utility assistance, help is available for those struggling financially under the weight of the ongoing pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic is devastating for many Wisconsin families, both physically and financially. Wisconsin was designated as one of the nation’s “hot spots” following weeks marked with record-setting days for both new confirmed cases, and hospitalizations.
The surge of COVID-19 infections is threatening the economic recovery in the state, which has been promising in recent months. Here in Wisconsin, the 13-week unemployment rate average dropped to 4.87 percent in October, down from a monthly high of 13.6 percent in April, prompting the federal government to pull the plug on Wisconsin residents’ eligibility for extended unemployment benefits, as of the week of November 7.
But a promising economic outlook is little consolation for people still struggling financially. The pandemic’s staying power, and ongoing intermittent workplace shutdowns, are a barrier on the road to recovery.
Jennifer Fasula, executive director of the Foundation for Rural Housing, says there are resources available for those who are having trouble paying for things such as mortgage payments, utility bills, rent, property taxes, and some other key expenses—namely, internet bills and school supplies. “We’re just trying to help people stay above water right now,” Fasula said. “This situation is much different than the last recession caused by the housing crisis, because businesses are literally shutting down, and it’s not just retail, it’s not just agriculture, it’s everybody.”
It is the mission of the Foundation for Rural Housing to help prevent homelessness with various grant programs. After the pandemic hit, the organization was granted funds from the federal CARES Act, with the guidance that it must be used for “preventing, preparing, or responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Fasula says they surveyed families and organizations to find out how the funds could be most beneficial. “Most of them told us that the virtual schooling has really increased their costs—not just for internet, but for utilities, school supplies, even food for students who typically qualify for free meals at school, but now they’re home all day.”
Filling the Gap:
How one Wisconsin co-op is helping members stay connected during the pandemic
As school officials in the Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services area weighed the options for back-to-school this fall, it was clear that virtual schooling could be a continued reality for members who do not have access to reliable internet. Co-op staff stepped up to find a way to fill the gap.
“Our first idea was to allow community members to come to our parking lot and access the Internet using our guest WiFi network,” said Nate Boettcher, Pierce Pepin president and CEO. “As we continued our discussions, there was concern that students would have a hard time trying to do homework in the car, so the discussion moved into whether we could provide MiFi jetpacks for families to use.”
And that is exactly what they did. The electric co-op is providing MiFi jetpacks for members to check out and use for distance learning, free of charge. Jetpacks are devices that let a user wirelessly access internet connection via a cellular network. The jetpacks have security restrictions enabled that comply with the same security standards used by schools. The co-op IT systems administrator administers the program and offers technical support.
“During this pandemic, there have been many hurdles that families have had to navigate,” Boettcher said. “Because a large portion of our service territory does not have reliable high-speed internet available, we felt this could help families make sure their children don’t fall behind in their school work. We see it as one more way to live up to our cooperative values of concern for community, and education, training and information.”
In response, Fasula and the foundation created the Supplemental Educational Expenses program, which reimburses up to $300 per household for costs related to schooling, including office and printer supplies, electronics, clothing, and even food. They will also reimburse required expenses for students back in the classroom, for things such as masks and water bottles. Applicants to this program must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty limit, and must submit receipts. The application process is short and includes two simple questions about the impact of the pandemic. The program is open to residents in all of the state’s 72 counties.
The Foundation for Rural Housing’s HomeNet program helps families pay for internet expenses, which is critical during the pandemic. To qualify, applicants must have at least one child in middle or high school and be at or below 80 percent of their county’s median income level.
The Foundation for Rural Housing also offers a one-time matching payment of $400 for people to pay utility bills. Fasula expects the spring will bring an onslaught of applications for this as investor-owned utilities were barred from disconnecting for non-payment from March through November. Since the annual winter moratorium runs from November through April, some customers may have been accumulating bills for up to 18 months. “When that moratorium lifts, we fully expect to be bombarded with applications,” Fasula said.
Wisconsin’s member-owned electric cooperatives, which are not-for-profit and governed by a board of directors, voluntarily halted the process of disconnecting service for non-payment during the “Safer at Home” order, but many resumed disconnections over the summer. Still, Fasula says they have not had a single household disconnected for non-payment among persons they have worked with during the pandemic. “The co-ops that we talked to have been very gracious about working with their members,” she said.
Fasula says when people contact them about one program, they screen them to see if they are eligible for assistance through any of their many programs. As the pandemic shows no sign of slowing, she expects the demand for these resources to ramp up as well, but she is optimistic that they will have the funds needed, particularly to reimburse for school expenses, available through the end of the school year.
“We need to work with these folks and do what we can to help them get through this,” Fasula said. “So many people are struggling right now. There’s so much uncertainty, and it’s not their fault.”
If you are facing a financial hardship due to the pandemic, or for information on the other programs listed here, go to wisconsinruralhousing.org, or call the Foundation for Rural Housing at 608-238-3448.