The United States government offers a wide array of assistance to its citizens who are struggling to make ends meet. Benefits tend to rise during recessions, as individuals find it difficult to find work or are increasingly laid off. In recent years, the bursting of a historic housing bubble has pushed people out of their homes, while higher unemployment levels have made it difficult for some to afford mortgage payments. In other instances, women and children may require benefits, as might those that have become disabled through either work-related injuries or other health issues. Below are five major social safety net services provided by federal and state governments and agencies.

Welfare Programs
According to, U.S. welfare programs were created to help individuals who became unemployed or underemployed. Programs like the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program; Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC); and Medicaid are included under the welfare umbrella. Federally-funded welfare programs officially started during the Great Depression and have only continued to grow since. For instance, the WIC program offers assistance to low-income women who are currently pregnant or have young children under five years of age. This program provides federal grants for food and healthcare services.

Food Stamps
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) operates the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The program was known as the Food Stamp Program until 2008. It helps low-income individuals obtain the proper food and nutrition through food banks, local SNAP offices, as well as other nutritional programs. The minimum monthly benefit increased to $14 per month back when the agency changed its name; this includes an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card and is accepted at more than 171,000 stores, according to the SNAP website. The site also details that the program was helping 29 million individuals per month back in August 2008, just as the financial crisis was peaking.

Unemployment Benefits
The U.S. Department of Labor operates an insurance program that provides benefits for unemployed individuals who qualify for its assistance. Benefit amounts are determined at the state level. Funding levels are based on the amounts that employers pay in taxes for underlying workers to receive unemployment benefits. There are base requirements, such as having to have worked four out of five of the last calendar quarters prior to receiving any benefits. According to recent statistics, September 2012 saw 382,000 new unemployment claims and an estimated 3.3 million individuals are currently receiving benefits through state programs.

Housing Programs and Homeless Shelters
States also operate homeless shelters with assistance from federal programs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) works to create affordable homes for lower-income individuals. Currently, there are a number of programs designed to help homeowners stay in their homes. The Making Homes Affordable Program has contributed to more than one million home modifications, including altering payments so that those with home values below the amount of the original mortgages can afford monthly payments. This has resulted in an estimated $14.4 billion reduction in mortgage payments.

The Federal Social Security program helps provide benefits for Americans with disabilities. For those who have fulfilled certain working requirements before becoming disabled, Social Security Disability Insurance is available. Medicare benefits also kick in after two years of receiving disability benefits through Social Security.

The Bottom Line
Navigating all of the federal and state programs is a challenge, but there is a wide array of agencies that can help individuals in need. Most programs discuss ways they fight against individuals that take advantage of the system, but the services are extremely valuable for those truly in need.