Quick Guide to Understanding Public Assistance Programs

The recent U.S. Census Bureau report found that an estimate of 52.2 million (21.3%) American citizens require monthly support from public assistance programs. Although assistance programs are relied on by a large segment of our population, there is often much confusion as to what kind of assistance these programs offer, as well as who may qualify for this support. To better understand poverty and our government system, it is important for all United States citizens to further expand their knowledge on our public assistance programs.

A Brief History on Assistance Programs

Public Assistance Programs

When individuals and families fall under the federal poverty threshold, our government has established public assistance programs that provide a variety of support in specific areas. But our government have not always offered such programs. In fact, the idea for public assistance programs did not originate until over a hundred years after America’s birth. Initially led predominately by Theodore Roosevelt & Woodrow Wilson, public assistance programs naturally expanded became a large part of the support that the United State’s government provides its citizens.

While there are a variety of additions and reforms made, one of the most important occurred in the 1960s with the war on poverty and the Great Society programs, both of which had major influence on our current state of public assistance programs.

What Kind of Assistance Is Offered?

There are a wide variety of assistance that is offered through the United States public assistance programs. No matter whether it involves child care, food assistance, health care, housing or utilities, our government has established programs that can provide support for almost all of our basic necessities. Although all programs are important, there are a few that are more impactful than others.

Food Assistance

The United States government offers numerous food assistance programs to help individuals and families who may not be able to afford a proper meal. Of these programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called the Food Stamps program) is used the most widely. Through this program, each qualifying family is given an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card with a monthly stipend that depends mostly on the individual or family’s income. Individuals and families can then use this EBT card to purchase food at a grocery store.

To apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, individuals can fill out an application at your local DHS office or go to the DHS government site and complete the form online. After a few weeks, a social worker may contact you for a brief telephone interview so that they can gather all the information needed for them to create your account. In order to qualify for an EBT card, individuals must fit into one or both of the following criteria:

Health Care Assistance

While there are a variety of health care assistance programs, one of the most important is the Medicaid program, which gives medical coverage to individuals that have disabilities or are aged 65 or older. Within Medicaid coverage, there are two main programs: the “Low Income Aged/Disabled program” and the “Medically Needy.” Both programs offer the same threshold for resource limits, but differ in that the qualifying income limit is lower for the “Medically Needy” program.

To apply for the Medicaid program, you must go to your local DHS office. After your application has been submitted, you should be informed within a few weeks to a month. Keep in mind that in order to qualify, applicants must fit the following criteria:

  • Individuals aged 65 or older
  • Individuals with a sever physical or mental disability
    • Must have lasted longer than a year and prevent employment opportunities
  • Must be United States citizen
  • Eligible immigrant

Income Assistance

The United States government also provides income assistance, called Supplemental Security Income (SSI), to elderly individuals or those with sever physical or mental disabilities. The maximum amount of income assistance provided differs per year, but the 2015 limit can not exceed $772.92 for individuals or $1,179.38 for couples (Note: for couples, both individuals must be eligible).

To apply, you can contact your local Social Security Office where a social worker will instruct you on application directions. Keep in mind that individuals who qualify for SSI are automatically eligible for Medicaid coverage, so it may be wise to apply for Medicaid while your SSI application is being reviewed. Also, make sure that you fit the following SSI criteria:

  • Individuals who can’t work due to serious physical or mental disabilities
    • Must have lasted at least one year
  • Individuals aged 65 or older
  • Lawful permanent residents who entered the United States prior to 8/22/96 can qualify on disability alone
  • Lawful permanent residents who entered the United States after 8/22/96 must have worked for longer than 40 quarters

As you can see, the United States government offers a wide variety of public assistance programs to make certain that its citizens are living as happy and healthy lives as possible. If you think you may qualify, please contact your local DHS office or the DHS government website to fill out an application or learn more.

Learn More

Social work is a profession dedicated to enhancing the quality of life, the pursuit of social justice, and helping a wide range of individuals to reach their full potential. Offered by the School of Social Work at the University of New England, the Master of Social Work online option is open to students from a variety of educational backgrounds. The program envisions a world where social workers are at the forefront of advocating with individuals and communities for human dignity and social inclusion by mobilizing efforts to end inequities, exploitation and violence.






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