What Is Public Assistance? Analyzing Government Help in Times of Need

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People held in a large hand and sheltered by an umbrella.

The U.S. government allocates funds to assist low-income, elderly, and disabled individuals by providing income assistance such as TANF, SSI, and tax credits; food programs such as SNAP, WIC, and child nutrition; housing aid such as subsidized housing, public housing, and vouchers; and health insurance such as Medicaid and CHIP.


Events that disrupt the financial stability of an individual or a family can happen at any time. For example, the highest earner in the household may lose their job, and with it their salary and health care benefits. A family member may be diagnosed with an unanticipated health condition, requiring expensive medical interventions.

In these and similar scenarios, public assistance programs can form a type of safety net. Demand for public assistance naturally increases during times of upheaval, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Public Assistance?

The United States Census Bureau offers a helpful, concise public assistance definition: “Public assistance refers to assistance programs that provide either cash assistance or in-kind benefits to individuals and families from any governmental entity.”

Who Qualifies for Public Assistance?

Social assistance programs generally fall into one of two categories: Social welfare and social insurance.

Social welfare programs impose a means-tested low-income eligibility requirement. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are two prominent examples.

Social insurance, on the other hand, imposes more complex eligibility requirements, which may encompass age, employment status, or veteran status. Social Security and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs benefits are some examples, as is unemployment insurance compensation.

The U.S. government offers a detailed breakdown of who qualifies for public assistance under major federal programs, including guidelines for the following programs.

  • SNAP
  • Medicaid
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • SSI

How Did Public Assistance Start?

Public assistance has been embedded in American culture since the colonial era, when citizens recognized the obligation to help one another through a variety of means, including almshouses and workhouses (places for poor individuals and families). By the 1920s, a number of states expanded these institutions to include formal programs to help the elderly and the blind.

Many of the nation’s most prominent examples of public assistance, such as Social Security, were instituted during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt as a way to address the widespread poverty brought by the Great Depression. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935.

Public Assistance and COVID-19

The need for public assistance has only grown more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Is Welfare the Same as Entitlement?

In understanding the nature of public assistance, it’s helpful to understand the distinction between welfare programs and entitlement programs.

Entitlement programs pay benefits to those who have contributed to the system in some way. People who receive Social Security retirement payments, for example, contributed to the system through payroll taxes throughout their careers. In other words, entitlements are based on a contract between the government and the citizen.

Welfare programs, by comparison, are based on need. Unemployment insurance is one example.

The U.S. government allocates funds to assist individuals in several service areas.

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Social Welfare Programs in the U.S.

Social welfare programs provide subsidized or in-kind benefits to low-income families and individuals. While eligibility can vary from one program to the next, all are based on need. The United States has six major social welfare programs.

Major Welfare Programs in the United States

  1. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  2. Medicaid (including CHIP)
  3. Food and Nutrition Service (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP or “food stamps”], WIC, Child Nutrition Program)
  4. Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  5. Tax Credits: Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit
  6. Housing Assistance (public or subsidized housing and housing choice vouchers)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

The TANF program provides monthly income to families that are struggling financially. More than 2 million Americans receive monthly TANF payments, with the overwhelming majority being children. The following resources provide additional information about TANF.


Medicaid pays the medical care for millions of U.S. adults and children, including somewhere between 30% and 50% of all childbirths in a given year. Children have a specialized version of Medicaid called the Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which covers regular checkups, hospital care, eye exams, dental care, and more. Additional information can be found below.

Food and Nutrition Service

Many low-income individuals and families receive food vouchers, commonly known as “food stamps,” through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Additionally, the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides vouchers for women who are pregnant and who have kids up to six years old. Learn more at the following links.

Supplemental Security Income

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides additional income to low-income adults and children who live with disabilities. This includes many people who are blind. Learn more about SSI at these links.

Tax Credits

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program provides tax credits to low-income families. In 2018, the program lifted more than 5.6 million people out of poverty, according to a report from The Balance, the expert financial website. More than half of those individuals were children. Get more information here.

Housing Assistance

Housing assistance is available through public housing and privately-owned subsidized housing units, as well as through the Housing Choice Voucher Program. This program helps ensure low-income families spend no more than 30% of their income on rent. Find out more below.

Additional Public Assistance Examples

Besides these six major categories of U.S. public welfare, people in need can benefit from other public assistance examples. Below are some worth knowing and exploring.

Government Mortgage and Foreclosure Assistance

Government programs can help low-income families find some relief from their home mortgage payments up to the point of preventing foreclosure. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau lists mortgage forbearance options that are available to homeowners who have experienced financial peril or joblessness as a result of COVID-19. Also consider exploring the link below.

  • gov, Foreclosure. Learn about different laws and government assistance programs that can help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Energy Assistance Programs

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low-income families maintain basic standards of safety in their homes, specifically by making home energy affordable. The program provides financial assistance to cover utility bills and handle weatherization and other energy-related home maintenance needs. Learn more.

Community Action Agencies

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced his sweeping vision for a “Great Society,” a vision that included an ambitious War on Poverty. This led to the creation of the Community Action Network, which includes local private and public nonprofit organizations whose missions are to promote self-sufficiency in low-income areas. These organizations recruit volunteers and train them to provide meaningful services, including home repairs, to those in need.

Job Training

The Employment and Training Administration (ETA) program within the U.S. Department of Labor offers training to those who have been laid off or know they are about to be laid off. Through these training programs, people can develop the skills to find new work. More information can be found below.

Child Care Vouchers

Government subsidies and vouchers provide financial assistance to low-income families for child care, allowing the adults to go to work or school as needed. You can learn more at the links here.

Food Banks

Across the country, food banks store thousands and thousands of food items. These items are then delivered to local shelters, food pantries, and other facilities that serve low-income or homeless individuals.

Disaster Relief

Many government programs provide assistance to those whose lives have been impacted by hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Some specific types of assistance that are available include crop insurance for farmers, general crisis counseling, and loans for small businesses. Additional information can be found below.

  • gov, Disaster Relief. See a summary of the disaster benefits offered through the federal government.

Grants and Loans

Government grants and loans are available to universities, research labs, small businesses, and other entities. Additional information is available here.

  • gov, Grants. Visit this page for comprehensive information about government grants and loans.


Numerous charities offer assistance programs for low-income individuals and families. Homeless shelters, food pantries, and church-based social welfare programs are all included in this category.

COVID-19 Relief

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country passed the CARES Act. Its objective is to issue direct payment to U.S. citizens and also enact key provisions and protections for struggling small businesses. Additional information can be found at the link below.

The U.S. government and local government agencies provide a wide range of social welfare services.

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Who Funds Public Assistance Programs?

Funding for major public assistance programs in the U.S. comes primarily from the federal government, with support from state and local governments.

In most cases, the majority of funding for a public assistance program is provided by the federal government, with state governments left to administer the programs. Some states may expand the programs they offer and offset the added costs with their own additional funding.

In some cases, Congress may reduce the federal government’s funding for a program, but not reduce the state’s administrative obligations. This creates an “unfunded mandate,” which means state and local governments are left to cover the funding gap. A number of unfunded mandates exist today; for example, SNAP is funded half at the federal level and half at the state level.

How Does the National Government Help Improve Public Health?

One important role of public assistance programs is to promote population health. The federal government contributes to this mission in a number of ways.

Poverty Reduction

Financial assistance programs are designed to help reduce rates of poverty. Supplemental Security Income (SSI), for example, provides assistance to more than 8 million Americans. This, in turn, helps reduce the rate of chronic diseases and disabilities, which are more common among those who live below the poverty line. As a HealthyPeople.gov study points out, “the risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity is higher among those with the lowest income and education levels.”

Food Assistance

Through food assistance programs, the federal government provides options for low-income individuals and families to afford healthy and nutritious foods. Reducing poverty can help mitigate chronic health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are often tied to poor nutrition.

Safer Living Conditions

Public housing options can help ensure low-income families have safe places to find shelter.

Preventive Care

Medicaid and CHIP cover the costs of medical check-ups and preventive care, enabling individuals to minimize their risk of serious illnesses and take prompt intervention as illnesses arise.

Academic Performance

Improved economic security can help improve a child’s performance in school. “Poverty and its many disadvantages can handicap learners before they even begin school and lead them to fall behind classmates or even quit school in frustration,” according to a report in the journal MoneyWise.

What Are the Major Problems Facing Social Welfare Programs Today?

While social welfare programs offer important benefits to millions of individuals and families, several factors interfere with the effectiveness of these programs.

  1. Stigmatization of recipients. Prevailing cultural narratives insist that those who use welfare programs are lazy or unskilled. To counter this misconception, it’s important to note that many recipients are children, as well as families facing unexpected financial hardships.
  2. Programs don’t always reach enough of the poor population. Even the best-funded and most carefully organized program may be insufficient for reaching all those who could benefit.
  3. Funding isn’t always increased. As the needs of the population change, particularly due to major events such as COVID-19, the government may be slow or resistant to increase funding.
  4. Not all states allocate funds sufficiently. States have the autonomy to administer programs and allocate funds as they see fit, which can lead to inconsistencies and inefficiencies.
  5. Transitioning from welfare to work can be challenging. Those who receive public assistance may have physical or emotional hurdles as they seek to transition into more lucrative employment.

Additional Resources

Consider learning more about some of the problems facing public assistance programs by visiting these links.

The Future of Public Assistance

Public assistance programs have the potential to do a lot of good for individuals, families, and society at large. Evidence suggests these programs are successful in helping low-income adults and children rise above the poverty line.

Proponents of public assistance will continue to seek government funding for programs. They will also champion reforms that can make public assistance more effective in helping those who need it most.

Infographic Sources

Federal Safety Net, U.S. Welfare Programs

USA.gov, Government Benefits, Grants, and Loans