Top government programs for low-income families
The federal government manages safety net programs, also known as welfare programs, to aid low-income Americans and to protect families from poverty. These programs are essentially government subsidies that help offset the costs of everything from health insurance to food to education, so that families in need can save their resources to help further their own economic growth.
Or, in simpler terms, there are a whole range of federal programs out there to help low-income people so that there basic needs are met. That way they can focus on their own security, growth, health, safety and development. The federal government provides the funding for welfare programs, while states administer them and provide additional funds.
There are savings on health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. There’s access to affordable housing through rental assistance programs. There’s access to low- and no-cost early childhood education through Head Start. There is food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And fortunately, those aren’t the only government assistance programs out there. From the Supplemental Social Security Program to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), here’s our guide to the top 10 government programs available to low-income families.
Who qualifies for low-income government programs?
Recipients of these kind of government benefits must prove their income is below a set amount, which is some percentage of the federal poverty level. Most programs also require you to be a United States citizen or an eligible non-citizen. And many programs have state requirements based on family size and details about combined family income.
Through executive order, the Trump administration has called for the introduction of work requirements to receive some of these welfare benefits. President Trump doubled down on this concept, tying them into the 2020 fiscal budget he introduced. For now, the government agencies and departments that administer these programs are developing ways to introduce work requirements into many of these programs.
And don’t forget that welfare programs are not entitlement programs by definition. Entitlement programs, like Social Security and unemployment insurance, determine eligibility based on prior contributions from payroll taxes. Welfare programs, however, are based solely on a family’s income level, and thus level of need.
Now let’s look at each of these government programs in more detail:
1. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
SNAP or Food Stamps provides eligible people with a benefits card, used like a debit card, to buy food at designated grocery stores and farmers markets. The SNAP program gives food vouchers to 47.6 million people or 23 million households. They receive $133 a month on average.
In addition to SNAP, there’s a food stamp program for nursing mothers and young children called The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC provides food or vouchers, education, and referrals to help feed pregnant women and children up to age six. In 2017, 7.7 million people received WIC each month.
For school-aged children, there is the Child Nutrition Program, which provides free or reduced-cost lunches to 30 million children. SNAP, WIC, and the Child Nutrition Program are all administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
2. Health Insurance Marketplace
Through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), millions of people have gained access to health coverage through Medicaid and the Health Insurance Marketplace. Before the ACA, most states did not give health coverage to adults without children, no matter how low their incomes were. The ACA also allows children to stay on their parents plan up to 26, which provides access to more young adults who may not have been able to afford coverage on their own.
To make health coverage more affordable, the ACA includes two different subsidies for individuals and families. It also requires that most health plans cover preventive care—like vaccines, birth control, blood pressure tests, cancer screenings, and more—at no additional cost. One essential part of the ACA is that it protects people with pre-existing conditions from being denied health insurance. Before the ACA health insurance companies could deny anyone insurance based on pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or cancer.
While you’re applying, you can also grab our guide to finding a free or low-cost clinic near you for any immediate needs you have.
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Medicaid is the nation’s public health insurance program for low-income individuals and families. It is administered by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program provides free or low-cost health benefits to adults, kids, pregnant women, seniors, and people with disabilities. The Medicaid program covers 1 in 5 Americans, with a broad array of health services and limits enrollees out-of-pocket costs.
Grab our guide to Medicaid here —you can save it and refer back to it later.
Medicaid finances nearly a fifth of all personal healthcare spending in the U.S. In 2016, Medicaid covered over 76 million low-income Americans. Children account for 43%, or more than four in ten, of all Medicaid enrollees, and the elderly and people with disabilities account for about one in four enrollees. About half of all U.S. births are paid by Medicare.
The Affordable Care Act increased Medicaid coverage by 28 percent. It raised the income level and allowed single adults to qualify.
4. Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
CHIP offers free or low-cost medical and dental care to uninsured kids up to age 19 whose family income is above Medicaid’s limit but below their state’s CHIP limit. In addition to Medicaid, six million children received additional benefits from CHIP. It covers hospital care, medical supplies, and tests. It also provides preventive care, such as eye exams, dental care, and regular check-ups. CHIP is also administered through CMS in the Department of Health and Human Services.
5. Subsidized Housing, Housing Vouchers, and Public Housing Programs
Housing Assistance helps low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities get into affordable private or government-owned rental housing. The Housing Choice Voucher Program gives certificates to rent approved units. The subsidy allows recipients to pay no more than 30 percent of their income. It provides 1.2 million units of public housing and local agencies administer it to 2.2 million renters. This is the old Section 8 program. The Public Housing Agency also allows some families to use the voucher to purchase a modest home.
There is also the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), providing energy assistance and weatherization programs. It provides $3.4 billion in block grants to the states.
6. Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI)
Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI) provides cash to low-income seniors and adults and kids with disabilities. It helps the aged, blind, and disabled buy food, clothing, and shelter. On average, roughly 8.4 million people receive $536 per month. Of those, 7.3 million are blind or disabled.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
7. Welfare or TANF
Administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), TANF programs provide cash for a limited time to low-income families working toward self-sufficiency. TANF may also offer non-cash benefits such as child care or job training.
In 2017, 2.5 million recipients received income from TANF. Of these, 1.9 million were children. On average, a three-person family received $447 a month. Despite this help, they still live below the poverty line. Families who receive TANF must get a job within two years and can only receive this benefit for five years or less in some states. In addition, if they have another child and do not own more than $2,000 in total assets, they may not be eligible for more income.
8. No-cost internet through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)
Eligible households can get high-speed internet at no cost. If you’re eligible, you’ll get $30 per month off of their internet bill, and 20 internet carriers have agreed to provide ACP-eligible households a plan for no more than $30 per month, meaning that the overall cost is $0. You can also get a one-time $100 discount to purchase a computer or tablet. See if you qualify and apply here.
Additional Federal Programs For Low-income Families
9. Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
Earned Income Tax Credit is a tax credit for families with at least one child. They must make less than $51,567 a year to qualify. In 2012, over 27 million received credits totaling $63 billion. That’s a little more than $2,335 per taxpayer. EITC lifted 6.5 million people out of poverty, half of whom were children.
10. Head Start
Head Start is a free or reduced cost program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health nutrition, and parent involvement services. This program is offered to low-income children, from birth to 5 years old, and their families. In 2016 the program serviced nearly 1 million children and 1.4 million child care programs. Head Start is also administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.
11. Federal Pell Grant Program
The Department of Education runs the Federal Pell Grant Program to promote postsecondary education (college and trade school) for students from low-income households. Grants are similar to scholarships and don’t need to be repaid. They are designed to go to undergraduate students based on factors such as the cost of attendance at the school and expected family and student contribution. In 2017, there were approximately 4,800 participating postsecondary institutions and grants were awarded for amounts between $592 and $5,920, with the average award totaling $4,050 per recipient.
What about unemployment benefits?
Each state operates its own unemployment benefits program. Depending on your state’s program and requirements, you might be able to qualify for an unemployment insurance program in your state. These programs pay a cash amount if you lose your job through no fault of your own. Some states also provide extended unemployment benefits when there is high unemployment, meaning you can collect on your unemployment insurance for 13 weeks. You can apply for an extension once your regular unemployment benefits run out. Although the details for how to apply and qualify vary by state. And remember, you must report all unemployment benefits you received in a given calendar year as income when you file your taxes for that year.
In addition to unemployment benefits through your state, the federal and state government work together to provide all kinds of unemployment help and job training programs. If you’ve been laid off from a job, there are a number of employment and training programs run by the U.S. Department of Labor. These include retraining programs to apprenticeship programs to vocational skills programs to special programs for farm workers, refugees older Americans still in the workforce, and Native Americans. You can learn about all of these different programs and what you might be able to apply for at the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop.org site.
The U.S. Department of Labor also provides self-employment assistance, designed to enable those who are currently unemployed to start their own businesses. In these programs, instead of collecting unemployment insurance benefits, those currently unemployed may instead receive a weekly allowance which they can use towards starting their new business. Self-employment assistance availability and eligibility varies by state, so check with your state’s State Unemployment Insurance Agency for more details.
Don’t forget that if you lose your job for any number of reasons, voluntary or involuntary, you are most likely eligible for COBRA. This allows you to keep the health insurance you had through your previous employer by paying 100% of the monthly premiums yourself. If COBRA is too expensive or you wish to seek other health insurance plan options, don’t forget that a change in employment status may qualify you for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP). This will enable you to shop and enroll in a Marketplace Obamacare plan outside of the standard Open Enrollment Period. If you want to learn more about whether you qualify for an SEP and want advice on how to best shop for an Obamacare plan, the HealthSherpa Consumer Advocate can help. Plus, many people who have enrolled through HealthSherpa have saved 80% on their monthly premiums. If you need health insurance, give our Consumer Advocates a call at (872) 228-2549.
Can I get help paying my utility bills?
There are a number of government programs available to help defer the costs of utility bills.
The Lifeline program run by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) helps low-income individuals and families get discounted landline and cell phone service. Lifeline provides a monthly discount of up to $9.25 on monthly telephone service, broadband Internet access service, or voice-broadband bundled service purchased from participating providers. Subscribers can receive a Lifeline discount on either a wireline or a wireless service, and you can get one Lifeline service per household.
Lifeline is available to eligible low-income consumers in every state, commonwealth, territory, and on Tribal lands. To be eligible, you must have an income at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in certain federal assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA), Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit, or Tribal programs (and live on federally-recognized Tribal lands). You can check online to see what providers offer Lifeline services in your area and see if and what kind of benefits you might qualify for.
The Low-Income Home Energy Program (LIHEAP) is available to help defer your home energy utility bill costs. Although the program does not pay for sewage or water bills, it can help subsidize your energy bills and help get those bills down through weatherization improvements to make your home more energy efficient. Requirements for LIHEAP vary by state, and unfortunately only about 20% of households that are qualified for LIHEAP receive benefits. This is because when LIHEAP funds run out of the year, no more benefits can be administered until Congress makes more funds available. So, just because you qualify for LIHEAP does not guarantee that you will receive help due to a limited number of funds available for this kind of assistance. However, a person or family participating in certain other benefit programs (like SNAP, SSI, and TANF) may be automatically eligible. You can contact your local LIHEAP office to see if you qualify and if you’re able to receive benefits for the year.
Watch out for government grant and loan scams
Though there are many excellent government assistance programs out there, there are even more fraudulent scams designed to take advantage of low-income people in need of help. If you are contacted by someone promising a grant or loan through the government to help off-set your costs, this is very likely a scam. If someone contacts you and says you have been awarded a government grant, that you won a drawing for a government grant, or a number of other claims promising you a block of money in the form of a government loan or grant, collect all the information you can from the person and do not give out any information of your own. These kinds of statements are more often tied to scams meant to harm people, and are not actually affiliated with the federal government. You can report a fraud — or find out if you might have been targeted for a fraud — by contacting the Federal Trade Commission online, or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. You can also report grant-related scam attempts to the Health and Human Services (HHS) Fraud Hotline at 1-800-447-8477. Again, do not give your personal information, including your social security number, bank account numbers, birth date, or any other personal details, to anyone contacting you about a grant or loan.
Can I get help for a mental health crisis?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) can connect you with a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. If you need help for a mental health crisis or are having suicidal thoughts, please call them.
You can also text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line for 24/7 crisis interventions. Crisis Text Line uses a network of over 1,500 crisis counselor, all of whom have completed 34 hours of training on reflective listening, collaborative problem solving and crisis management.
How to enroll in the programs listed
If you or your family are in need of assistance, visit the organization to find out if you are eligible for each benefit. For questions about the Affordable Care Act, health insurance, or to enroll in a Marketplace healthcare plan, HealthSherpa is available to help. Get health insurance help at (872) 228-2549.