James Ransdell had experienced intensely stressful moments in life before the coronavirus pandemic began ravaging his family’s finances.
The 34-year-old Army veteran served in Iraq as a cavalry scout for the First Armored Division during the 2006 battle of Ramadi. The urban battle against insurgents including al-Qaida in Iraq raged for eight months and cost nearly 100 American lives. Life seemed capricious. Ransdell conducted raids on insurgents, and it often felt like U.S. troops were bait to draw insurgents out of hiding.
That was real stress.
But so is this: laid off from his job at a Lakeville car dealership two weeks ago, staying indoors with his 6- and 8-year-old children, worrying whether his wife’s job at a pharmacy benefits management company remains stable. If she’s laid off, how will the Farmington family make house and car payments?
“I don’t want to belittle financial hardships, but is this life or death for us? No, it’s not,” Ransdell said. “But it’s a certain level of stability for the household. And I’ve got to make sure my kids aren’t affected too aggressively. I’m stressed to the max.”
Ransdell this week applied for a Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs grant, a one-time tax-free payment of $1,000 as a temporary financial bridge during the COVID-19 pandemic that’s ravaging the American economy.
The Minnesota Legislature recently pushed through $6.2 million for the state Department of Veterans Affairs for two types of grants: Disaster Relief Grants, $1,000 grants for veterans financially affected by the pandemic; and COVID-19 Special Needs Grants, for veterans with more significant impacts. The grant program was rolled out Monday on MinnesotaVeteran.org/COVIDrelief.
“Part of this was trying to simplify the process as much as possible so that we weren’t making an overly large burden on the veteran to provide documents and things like that to us,” said Brad Lindsay, the department’s deputy commissioner of programs and services. “If you have had a financial impact because of COVID-19, you’re going to get a $1,000 grant from the department.”
The $6.2 million figure was an educated guess to give widespread help to affected veterans. There are about 308,000 military veterans in Minnesota, but since this program is aimed at those losing employment, the 145,000 Minnesota veterans over age 65 and on fixed incomes were excluded from the equation. Roughly 5% of the overall population was expected to be see significant financial impact, Lindsay said, which led the state to the $6.2 million amount.
As of Thursday, the department had received 1,146 applications and had already approved 33.
A more extreme worry is for veterans in more dire straits than Ransdell, specifically homeless veterans. The state has made progress on reducing its number of homeless veterans, from more than 600 in 2010 to fewer than 250 on the homeless veteran registry today.
“Our concern is backsliding with all the progress we’ve made,” Lindsay said. “Is this going to hurt lots of veterans who’ve been getting along fine but now their spouses are losing jobs, they’re losing jobs, and suddenly they’re worried about being back on the street?”
Nate Estrem, a 40-year-old Iraq war veteran from Cottage Grove, isn’t worried about homelessness. But his family has had to tighten its belt considerably after the governor’s stay-at-home order essentially furloughed his wife, a massage therapist, from work.
Estrem’s job as a principal engineer for Metro Transit is stable, but, with four children, they’ve still cut spending across the board. They’re considering deferring student loans. Their child-care provider closed its doors to families of nonessential workers, but since they pulled out of child care with Estrem’s wife at home, that also means they may have lost their child-care slot when she goes back to work.
“I know $1,000 doesn’t seem like a ton of money, but it might help us bridge the gap a little better between now and when the government stimulus check comes out,” Estrem said. “Having that resource available almost instantaneously when the need arises — kudos to them.”
For Ransdell, the Iraq veteran who lost his job at the car dealership, unemployment checks alone will not bridge the gap. He had been a stay-at-home dad until their youngest started kindergarten last year, so he’s only been working full time since October. State benefits are calculated from the most recent 18 months of employment. His unemployment checks will be about a quarter of what they would have been if he’d been working the past 18 months.
“Our stress level has gone through the roof,” Ransdell said. “Looking for jobs in a market at the front end of a recession, in the middle of a pandemic — nobody’s looking to add to their staffs. Everything is still up in the air.”
That’s why he called the state veterans department to see what sort of help was available. The family’s situatioon isn’t dire yet. But they are already prioritizing which bills to pay first.
“We’re just piecing things together as best we can,” he said.