In one household, stimulus dollars at work

We’re certified skeptics when it comes to job creation tied to the federal stimulus bill. That doesn’t mean the stimulus isn’t doing some good.

minnecon.smallicon.gifJessica Sundheim reminded us of that recently when she wrote to describe in detail how her family’s been able to tap needed stimulus money to weatherize their house, afford her college and afford daycare so she can go to college.

Sundheim, 31, lives in Fergus Falls with her husband and four daughters, ages 2 to 11. A source in MPR’s Public Insight Network, she shared her story last year about forgoing Christmas presents to keep family finances afloat.

Things are better this year for many reasons. But we wanted to talk to her about the stimulus. We asked her to break down the areas she’s tapped and give us some detail on how it works. She opened a window for us on the stimulus and its benefits.

Weatherization

Sundheim’s family receives heating aid and were told of federal money available to Thumbnail image for jessica_sundheim_1.jpgweatherize their 1885 house. They’re needs were reviewed and a grant put in for insulation, a new furnace and a water heater. The work was recently finished.

The stimulus channeled about $5 billion into the federal Weatherization Assistance Program targeted at low-income families. Sundheim’s local contact says with the added money they can do more for more people.

What was the process like? “It takes a little bit of time,” she said.

Every year, when have we applied for heating assistance, we indicated that we were interested in the weatherization program. This was the third year that we indicated that we would be interested.  So, in the past it has been difficult, and there has been a waiting list.

My husband called Otter Tail/Wadena Community Action Council, the organization that handles the weatherization program in our area, and told them that it was our third year applying (I don’t know if this helped, but I don’t think it hurt). After we sent our Heating Assistance application in, and were approved, the Heating Assistance people sent our request…(an inspector) came and checked out the house from top to bottom and told us what he thought we needed to have improved.

After that he had to turn in his report and we waited to see what the council would approve. Then, we had several contractors come out to prepare bids, which they gave to Community Action. Finally, the contractors came and made the improvements. We started the process in January and our furnace was installed in October.

“It was cool,” she adds, “to see the difference in efficiency from before and after.”

Education money

Education got a big chunk of the stimulus, including $8.7 billion for Student Financial Assistance (Pell Grants and Federal Work Study)

Sundheim was able to tap those funds for college. That journey started with filling our the federal student aid form online.

After plugging in the numbers it only took about five minutes before the FAFSA website told me that I qualified for a Pell Grant, how much that grant was worth, and then the amount I was qualified to receive in Federal Student Loans. The website also let me know what state funding I qualified for.

I’m attending (Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Fergus Falls campus) and the grant covered the entire cost of my tuition.

Child care

“I spoke with my financial aid counselor at the college and she told me about the child care grant that is available through the school,” Sundheim said. “I filled out the application for that with my childcare provider and received that grant at the beginning of October.”

Unfortunately student aid and grants for childcare don’t get into your account until after the semester starts, so I had to pay for books with a credit card and the first month of childcare out of pocket.

Because I wasn’t sure if I’d get the childcare grant, I also applied for a Federal Student Loan. I had to study a tutorial about the different types of student loans and take a quiz before I was able to apply for the loan.

It was helpful because I learned which loans allow for payments to be deferred and which loans have interest that has to be payed on the loan. I also learned that I could pay the loan back right away without any penalty, which I planned to do if I received the childcare grant.

So, the process all-in-all is time consuming, and you have to be patient. You have to check in with your college and make sure that they have received your applications.

Return on investment

Like those disclaimers in mutual fund commercials, Sundheim’s results may not be typical.

We’d love to hear from individual Minnesotans about how they’ve tried to tap stimulus funds, the positives and negatives of that experience. Post below or contact me directly with a story.

For Sundheim, though, there’s no doubt the money’s helped her family and its benefits are cascading into the community.

Last year I made less than $10,000 at my fifteen/thirty hour a week cashiering job. I paid $3,000 in childcare and worked opposite my husband to save on childcare costs. Once I graduate, my earning potential will move to $30,000 +, and I will be working in my calling helping others. It will also put us in the middle class, which means a new tax bracket!

I also wanted to let you know that one block from my house they are putting in a brand new bridge. There is a big bright sign that the project is funded through the American Recovery & Reinvenstment Act, so I’m surrounded by the economic stimulus. Our country is coming back!

I am majoring in ministry and theology and plan on getting my Masters of Divinity. I hope to be an ordained Presbyterian minister. I would like to work for social justice and teach the faith, forgiveness, work ethic, generosity and love that has gotten us through everything…I cannot tell you how good it feels to know that my country thinks that it is worth investing in my future.

Oh, and she’d also like you to know that she can already show a return on the taxpayer investment: “Midterm grades came out and I’m pullin A’s! ”

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