Government Assistance Programs: What's Available, Where to Apply

Many federal and state agencies provide financial help to individuals and businesses. Here's a guide to major programs.

The federal government offers a variety of assistance programs for individuals and businesses, often in partnership with the states. Here's an overview of major ones, with links for more information on the programs and how to apply for them if you're eligible.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal and state governments offer a wide range of assistance programs for individuals, families, and businesses.
  • These programs can help provide income, food, housing, healthcare, and other necessities to those in need.
  • Scammers often prey on individuals in need of assistance, so it pays to be on your guard.

Financial Assistance for Individuals and Families

These programs provide benefits in the form of payments, goods, or services to help with basic living expenses if you qualify due to low wages.

Unemployment Insurance

Unemployment insurance (UI) is a federal and state program. The states administer the program, which the federal government largely funds through federal unemployment tax (FUTA) on employers. States may also collect their own state unemployment tax (SUTA).

The goal of unemployment insurance is "to provide temporary financial assistance to unemployed workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own," so not everyone who has lost a job qualifies.

You can apply through your state unemployment insurance office.

Pros of Unemployment Insurance

  • Partial wages until you are rehired or find another job
  • Time to explore new/better employment opportunities
  • Opportunity to pursue education or training in a new career path

Cons of Unemployment Insurance

  • Less income than when working (usually)
  • Regular benefits only for 26 weeks (unless extended by law)
  • No employer-provided healthcare benefits
  • Unemployment benefits are subject to income tax

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), once known as welfare, is another federally funded, state-run benefits program designed to help families achieve independence following temporary difficulty. Qualified recipients may receive help with food, housing, home energy, childcare, and job training. TANF recipients must engage in some type of work activity as defined by their state.

Each state runs its TANF program and sets the eligibility criteria. You can apply at your local county social services agency or call your state TANF office for local contact information to sign up for benefits. Qualifying for TANF does not disqualify you from other government benefits.

Pros of TANF

  • Provides needed assistance for families
  • Targets specific help for children
  • Can supplement income if you are already working
  • Provides job training to encourage independence

Cons of TANF

  • The income level required to qualify can be very low
  • Can create a negative social stigma
  • Uneven coverage due to individual state rules
  • May discourage job hunting

The Social Security Administration (SSA) Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool provides an excellent way to determine your eligibility for any benefit administered by the SSA.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Benefits

Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are available to people who cannot work for at least one year due to a medical condition or who are expected to die from that condition.

To be eligible, you must:

  • Have worked in a job or jobs covered by Social Security
  • Meet Social Security's definition of disability
  • Have worked long enough and recently enough to qualify for disability benefits

Additional information about SSDI can be found in the Social Security Disability Benefits brochure. The Social Security Disability Planner helps you determine if you are eligible. If you believe you qualify, you can apply online.

Pros of SSDI

  • Provides monthly income
  • Freezes Social Security earnings record, so workers aren't penalized for not working while receiving SSDI
  • Possibility of tax-free income
  • Provides rehab and back-to-work incentives

Cons of SSDI

  • Very strict eligibility requirements
  • Can take a long time to process and approve SSDI claims
  • Continuing eligibility will be reviewed, depending on the expectation of medical condition improvement/recovery, in anywhere from six months to seven years
  • Can cause loss of Medicaid or SSI benefits

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal income program administered but not funded by Social Security. SSI is designed to meet the basic needs of older, blind, and/or disabled Americans who have little or no income. SSI consists of a monthly payment to help with the cost of food, clothing, and shelter and can let you qualify for Medicaid coverage as well as food stamps.

SSI qualification requirements generally require you to be 65 or older and blind or disabled. Among other things, you must also:

  • Have limited income
  • Have limited resources
  • Be a U.S. citizen or national or "qualified alien"

The SSI application process web page explains how to apply and includes an extensive How Someone Can Help You With Your SSI section.

Pros of SSI

  • Benefits are set at the federal level, not by your state
  • Can qualify for Medicaid and food stamps on SSI
  • No prior work history required
  • May also qualify for concurrent Social Security

Cons of SSI

  • Eligibility can be negatively affected by living arrangements
  • Significant documentation needed to qualify
  • Claims and appeals processes often slow
  • Significant asset restriction rules

The table below compares TANF with both SSDI and SSI regarding eligibility.

Program Low Income Family 65 or Older, Blind, or Disabled U.S. Citizen/Eligible Noncitizen Work Requirement
TANF Yes Yes None Single adult/couple with no children: No.
Families with children: Yes
SSDI No No Disabled Yes Yes
SSI Yes No Any Yes No

Source: Social Security Administration

Student Financial Aid

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the government access point for all forms of student financial aid, including grants and scholarships, student loans, and work-study programs. These programs provide financial help to college students with demonstrated financial needs.

Eligibility is based on:

  • Financial need
  • Being a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen
  • Maintaining good standing on your federal student loans
  • Acceptance into an eligible degree program
  • Maintaining adequate academic progress

Additional requirements can be found on the Federal Student Aid web page. The Federal Student Aid Application Process begins with FAFSA.

Pros of Student Financial Aid

  • Helps to pay for college
  • Deferment for federal loans
  • Opportunity to attend better colleges
  • Creates good credit if loans are paid on time
  • May be eligible for student loan forgiveness

Cons of Student Financial Aid

  • Loan repayment required (unless forgiven)
  • Lifetime limits on Pell Grants
  • Student loans are difficult to discharge through bankruptcy
  • Defaulting on loans hurts credit

The Current Pause in Student Loan Payments

Currently, student loan payments (including principal and interest) required for federally held student loans have been suspended. The latest extension of this pause, announced Nov. 22, 2022, lasts until either one of the following dates:

1. 60 days after the Department of Education is permitted to implement the Biden administration's debt relief program that has been blocked by federal court order, or the current litigation involving the program is resolved

2. 60 days after June 30, 2023

Note that the suspension only applies to federal student loans held by the Department of Education.

The Department of Education also created an initiative called "Fresh Start" to help borrowers in default. Defaulted loans will return to repayment status and the record of default will be removed from credit reports.

The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in March 2021 includes a provision that makes all student loan forgiveness from Jan. 1, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2025 tax-free.

Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program at the start of 2022. The ACP is an extension of the EBB program, put in place by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The ACP offers a maximum monthly maximum discount of $30 for broadband services ($75 for those on tribal lands) that qualify. The program also grants a one-time discount of up to $100 toward a new laptop, desktop, or tablet purchased from participating providers.

Your household is eligible if household income is at or below 200% of the current Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Your household can also qualify if at least one household member meets one of the following criteria:

  • Is eligible for a participating provider's existing low-income internet program.
  • Participates in one of these assistance programs: The National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program (including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision), SNAP, Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), WIC, Veterans Pension or Survivor Benefits, or Lifeline.
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year.

To apply, do the following:

  • Go to to apply online or print an application to mail in.
  • Contact your preferred participating provider to select a plan and have the discount applied to your bill.

Pros of the ACP

  • The ACP program attacks the high cost of broadband, one of the leading causes of the digital divide.
  • The $30 (or $75) discount can be used alongside other discount programs.
  • Your internet service provider must give you fair warning that your discount is about to run out.

Cons of the ACP

  • The program has limited funding ($14.2 billion) and may not last as long as the need for it exists.
  • Although the list of participating providers is long (more than 1,600 as of December 2022), it is possible you may not find a provider in your area.
  • You could be tempted to upgrade to a faster plan and be responsible for payment when ACP funds run out.

Housing Assistance Programs for Renters

There are three forms of subsidized rental housing: privately owned subsidized housing, the housing choice voucher (HCV) program (formerly Section 8), and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) public housing.

With privately owned housing, you find the housing you want and apply for it at the rental office. You can search for housing at With HCV, you find your apartment or house, and then the government pays the amount for which you qualify while you pay the difference.

HUD public housing, often used by people who don't qualify for Section 8 housing, requires you to rent from a local public housing authority based on your income. Wait times for both HCV and public housing programs may be long, depending on where you are applying.

To be eligible for privately owned subsidized housing, you must:

  • Be within the income limit for your location and the size of your family
  • Meet other requirements set by the property owner

To be eligible for housing choice or HUD public housing, you must:

  • Be a family, a senior citizen, or have a disability
  • Fall within program income limits
  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen

As noted above, you apply for privately owned housing at the rental office. For the other two programs:

  • Contact your local Public Housing Agency.
  • Complete an application (requiring information such as income, family size, employer, and bank).
  • Provide documentation, such as a photo ID, birth certificates, and tax returns.

Pros of Subsidized Rental Housing

  • Below-market rental rates
  • The benefit of government oversight
  • Opportunity to save for something better
  • Programs allow for choice

Cons of Subsidized Rental Housing

  • Can deplete city resources and services
  • Some of the existing housing is located in areas with high crime rates
  • Difficult to qualify
  • Long waiting lists

The table below compares all three housing programs and the requirements for each.

Program Low Income Family/ Senior/ Disabled U.S. Citizen/ Eligible Noncitizen You Find
Private subsidized Yes No No Yes
Housing choice voucher (HCV) Yes Yes Yes Yes
Public housing Yes Yes Yes No


Housing Assistance Programs for Home Buyers

HUD has several programs designed to help you purchase a home if you qualify.

FHA loans

One part of HUD, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), insures mortgages, which makes it easier for buyers to become homeowners thanks to less strict eligibility requirements. The program is popular with first-time home buyers but not limited to them.

Eligibility for an FHA loan depends in part on your ability to post a down payment of 3.5% of the purchase price and have a credit score of at least 580. You must also make sure the home is priced within the loan limit for an FHA home in its location. 

To apply for an FHA loan, you must find an approved FHA lender because the FHA doesn't lend the money itself. If you have good credit and the ability to pay 10% to 15% down, you may find a conventional loan is less expensive than an FHA-insured loan.

Homeownership Vouchers

The HUD homeownership voucher program lets low-income families in the HCV program, including those in public housing, use their vouchers to meet monthly mortgage payments and other expenses when buying a home for the first time. Contact your local PHA to find out if your PHA offers this program.

Programs for Active-Duty Service Members and Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers home loan programs to active-duty service members, surviving spouses, and veterans. VA loans are provided by private lenders, with the VA guaranteeing a significant portion of the loan. A certificate of eligibility (COE) is required and can be applied for through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mortgage lending discrimination is illegal. If you think you've been discriminated against based on race, religion, sex, marital status, use of public assistance, national origin, disability, or age, there are steps you can take. One such step is to file a report to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or with HUD.

State Housing Programs

In addition to housing programs administered by the federal government, state housing finance agencies and state HUD offices offer special programs as well.

HUD also funds counseling agencies nationwide that advise on topics related to housing, including buying a home.

This table compares basic eligibility requirements for various government homeownership programs, including FICO credit score and debt-to-income ratio requirements.

Program FICO Credit Score Debt-to-Income Ratio Primary Residence
FHA 500 or higher 50% or less Yes
Housing choice voucher (HCV) PHA (Public Housing Agency) decision PHA decision Yes
Active-duty/veterans 620 by lender 41% Yes

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Pros of Government Homeownership Programs

  • Low or no down payment
  • Lower credit score to qualify
  • No mortgage insurance required for VA loans
  • Especially helpful for first-time buyers

Cons of Government Homeownership Programs

  • Higher mortgage insurance costs (except VA loans)
  • Restrictive government property standards
  • Limited to primary residences

Food Assistance Programs

From emergency food needs to ongoing nutrition assistance, the federal government, in partnership with states, offers free and low-cost food programs for families and individuals.

Immediate Aid

If you need food quickly, the USDA maintains a National Hunger Hotline—866-3-HUNGRY (866-348-6479)—with information and eligibility requirements available in English and Spanish. The hotline, which will connect you with emergency food providers, government programs, and social service agencies, operates Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Time.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP (previously called food stamps) helps needy families supplement their food budget to move toward self-sufficiency. Eligibility is determined by individual states that administer the program. You apply in the state where you live by contacting your state agency.

Some states allow online applications, while others require your physical presence.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

WIC provides low-income women and their young children with healthy food, nutrition counseling, and referral to health, welfare, and social services agencies. WIC is a federal grant program administered by the government through 89 WIC agencies and approximately 47,000 authorized retailers.

To be eligible, the mother must be pregnant, nursing, or postpartum (up to six months after birth) with infants (up to a year old) or children (under the age of five). There are additional income requirements posted on the WIC FAQ web page.

Food Programs for School-Age Children

Programs for school-age children include the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Eligibility requirements for all three programs are the same. If your family income falls below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines, your child is entitled to free food. If income is between 130% and 185% of guidelines, prices for meals are reduced.

Food Programs for Seniors

The federal government sponsors two programs designed to get food to low-income seniors. The Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) offers coupons to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs at farmers' markets, roadside stands, and farms.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides healthy food every month. You must be 60 years of age or older and live in an area that offers either program to apply. Both programs have income limits. For more information, use the USDA's state contacts list.

Pros of Government Food Programs

  • Nutritious food at no cost
  • Improved dietary intake for vulnerable populations
  • Reduced food insecurity for schoolchildren
  • Reduced medical costs for adults, children, and seniors

Cons of Government Food Programs

  • Potential social stigma for recipients
  • The consistency and quality of state-run programs vary
  • Limitations on what products can be purchased
  • Mandated work requirements difficult for adults with children

The table below lists eligibility requirements for federal food programs.

Program Eligibility
SNAP Must meet state guidelines
WIC Women: Pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum Children: Under five years old. Must meet additional WIC requirements
NSLP, SBP, and SFSP Less than 130% of poverty guidelines = free meals 130% to 185% of poverty guidelines = reduced-price meals
Seniors 60 or older and must meet state guidelines


Healthcare Programs

Six major government healthcare programs provide medical coverage for low-income and older Americans, children, veterans, and those who have recently lost their jobs.


Medicare is a federal health insurance program primarily for those 65 and older. Medicare is commonly divided into four parts. Medicare Part A covers for inpatient hospital stays and nursing care. Medicare Part B covers doctor's visits, tests, flu shots, physical therapy, and chemotherapy. Medicare Part C, otherwise known as Medicare Advantage, is Medicare Parts A and B coverage provided by a private insurer. Medicare Part D is Medicare's prescription drug benefit program, which is an optional benefit administered by private insurance companies.

Medicare is funded through a combination of payroll taxes and participant premiums, deductibles, and copays. Employees and employers each pay a 1.45% tax on all income, making the total Medicare tax 2.9%. If individuals earn over $200,000, they pay an additional 0.9%. This tax is levied only on employees, not employers.

Medicare's resources are pooled into trust funds: the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, which funds Part A, and the Supplemental Medical Insurance Trust Fund, which is funded by premiums and other income, and pays for Parts B and D.

If you are still working and covered by employer health insurance when you are three months away from your 65th birthday, discuss your Medicare options and requirements with your human resources department. You can also consult "How to Apply for Medicare Only" on the Social Security website.

ACA Health Insurance Marketplace is home to the Health Insurance Marketplace, created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), an Obama administration program designed to make affordable health insurance available to uninsured Americans. Anyone who doesn't have health insurance can obtain coverage through the Marketplace. Those who fall below certain income limits can receive subsidies that lower the cost of coverage.

The Marketplace normally has an annual enrollment period to obtain or change coverage. In 2023, open enrollment begins November 1 and runs through the end of the year.

Medicaid and CHIP

Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are related but have slightly different requirements. Medicaid is for low-income families and individuals. CHIP is for dependents under age 19 whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to pay for private health insurance coverage.

Both programs are federally funded in part and run at the state level. Each state has its own rules but must follow federal guidelines. You can apply for Medicaid and CHIP through the ACA Health Insurance Marketplace or your state Medicaid agency.

Veterans Administration Healthcare

The primary criteria to receive VA healthcare benefits are that you be a military veteran or former member of the National Guard or Reserve who served on active duty and was not dishonorably discharged. Specific eligibility depends on when you served and for how long. The rules are complicated but well explained on the VA's eligibility web page.


Health coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) is mandated by federal law for employees (and their dependents) when they lose their job or experience a reduction in work hours. One huge downside to COBRA coverage is the cost. When you lose your job, whatever amount your employer was contributing toward your health insurance goes away, and you have to pay the entire cost yourself.

Pros of Government Healthcare Programs

  • Improve public health
  • Stop medical bankruptcies for vulnerable populations
  • Boost the economy due to savings
  • Human rights issue

Cons of Government Healthcare Programs

  • Increases government debt
  • Potential for abuse
  • Reduces free market competition
  • May have long wait times for service

State Health Department Programs

State health departments offer programs in addition to those available at the federal level. Use the state health departments link to find out what is offered in your state, information about eligibility requirements, and how to apply.

Retirement Programs

The primary government retirement programs are Social Security for most citizens 65 and over who qualify through their work history and the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) for certain government employees who are not covered by Social Security.

Social Security Retirement Benefits

If you have paid into the Social Security system for at least 10 years, you can apply for Social Security retirement benefits for yourself or as a spouse if you meet the following four requirements:

  • You are at least 61 years and 9 months old.
  • You are not currently receiving Social Security on your work record.
  • You have not already applied for benefits.
  • You want benefits to start no more than four months in the future.

You can also apply for Medicare when you apply for Social Security if you are within three months of age 65.

Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS)

FERS, which replaced the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) in 1987, provides benefits to civilian government workers through three programs: a Basic Benefit Plan, Social Security, and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

Eligibility for FERS benefits is determined by your age and number of years of service. The CSRS and FERS planning and applying websites provide complete information depending on how close you are to retirement.

Tax Filing Assistance Programs

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sponsors several tax-assistance programs to make federal and, in some cases, state tax filing easier and/or free.

Free File

If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $73,000 or below, you can file federal, and in many cases, state returns, online at no cost. The process and what you need to have to file are all explained in this Free File infographic. You can get help choosing a product using the Free File Online Lookup Tool.

With income above $73,000, you can still use the Free File Fillable Forms tool to prepare your taxes as long as you are comfortable doing your taxes yourself and don't require assistance. The fillable forms tool lets you file electronically but does not include state forms.

VITA and TCE Tax Filing Assistance Programs

The IRS has two in-person tax assistance programs: the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE). Both offer free tax-preparation assistance to qualified individuals. VITA generally applies to you if your income is $60,000 or less, you are disabled, or you have limited English-speaking skills. TCE is for citizens aged 60 or older.

You can find VITA and TCE program sites using either the IRS TCE/VITA locator tool or the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide site locator tool.

Financial Assistance Programs for Small Businesses

Small businesses are the beneficiaries of several long-standing government assistance loan programs, most of them originating from the Small Business Administration (SBA).

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA offers several programs aimed at all sectors of the agricultural community. Programs include farm loans, housing assistance, loans and grants for rural economic development, loans for beginning farmers and ranchers, livestock insurance, and more. Detailed information on all USDA programs, including how to apply, can be found on the USDA Grants and Loans program web page.

Small Business Lending Fund

The Small Business Lending Fund (SMLF), created as part of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, is a dedicated fund that provides capital to community banks and community development loan funds (CDLFs) to encourage those organizations to lend to small businesses. Information about this fund, including the location of lending institutions near you, can be found on the U.S. Treasury Small Business Lending Fund website.

Pros of Government Business Programs

  • Lower interest rates
  • Favorable repayment terms
  • Less collateral needed
  • Low or no down payments

Cons of Government Business Programs

  • The loan amount may be small
  • Long approval process
  • Personal guarantees are often required

Watch Out for Scams

People looking for government assistance sometimes come across ads for free government grants. However, the government does not award grants to individuals. It only awards them to states, universities, and other organizations. Anyone who suggests otherwise is probably running a scam. If you receive such an offer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests the following dos and don'ts:

  • Write down the phone number.
  • Register at the National Do Not Call Registry.
  • File a complaint with the FTC.
  • Don't give out bank account information.
  • Don't pay out any money.
  • Don't believe a caller or an email just because it claims to be from the government.

What Government Assistance Is Available in the U.S.?

There are many government assistance programs available in the U.S. Some of these are Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Veterans Administration Healthcare, and food program waivers. Spending time researching what programs are available in the areas where you need assistance could help ease your financial burden.

How Can I Get Financial Help Immediately?

If you are in need of urgent financial help, there are a number of government programs that can provide it quickly. These include food assistance (USDA National Hunger Hotline), money to help with utility bills (Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program benefits), and housing assistance (Emergency Housing Voucher Program).

Who Qualifies for Student Loan Forgiveness?

In August 2022, President Biden announced a plan for student loan forgiveness for up to $20,000 in federal loans per borrower. To receive the maximum amount, a borrower must earn less than $125,000 a year ($250,000 for married couples) and have received a Pell Grant in college. Those who did not receive a Pell Grant are eligible for up to $10,000 in forgiveness. However, federal courts have issued orders blocking the student loan forgiveness plan. Consequently, as of Nov. 11, 2022, the Department of Education temporarily stopped accepting applications for student loan forgiveness, while the Biden administration appeals the court ruling.

The Bottom Line

There are many federal and state government assistance programs available to individuals and businesses. If you need assistance, the links above will help you obtain more information about programs you may qualify for and how to apply for them.

Article Sources
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