The coronavirus pandemic has put government assistance programs into high relief, as many people who never needed them before are having to use them now. Here’s a descriptive list of major government assistance programs for individuals and businesses, with links to where and how to apply.

Key Takeaways

  • Many government assistance programs exist to help provide financial and other assistance during the coronavirus pandemic and other times of need.
  • Programs fall into eight general categories: financial, home rental, home ownership, food, healthcare, retirement, taxes, and small business.
  • Programs may be administered by the federal government alone or in partnership with states.
  • Scammers often prey on individuals in need of assistance and should be reported to the FTC.

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 (UI)

Unemployment insurance is a joint federal and state program that pays part of your wages when you lose your job through no fault of your own. The program is run by individual states, each with its own eligibility and filing requirements. Many states let you file online, by phone, or in person (though the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily halted in-person applications in many places).

Some states provide extended benefits for up to 13 weeks in times of high unemployment. Just because you qualify for regular benefits does not mean you will qualify for extended help.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC)

FPUC is a special emergency form of UI that applies to you if you lost your job due to the 2020 novel coronavirus pandemic. In addition to regular unemployment benefits, if you qualify for FPUC you get an additional 13 weeks of coverage plus an additional $600 per week of federal benefits through July 31, 2020.

FPUC also extends eligibility for unemployment insurance to you if you are self-employed, a gig worker, a freelancer, an independent contractor, or a part-time worker impacted by the coronavirus.

Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) Program

The Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program, created Aug. 8, 2020, is a federal-state unemployment benefit that provides $300 to $400 in weekly compensation to eligible claimants. The Federal government provides $300 per claimant from the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) and states are asked to provide the remaining $100.

LWA was in response to the expiration of the FPUC program July 31, 2020, and designed to offer compensation through Dec. 27, 2020, provided funding continues through that date.

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
  • Extended benefits of 13 weeks possible

Cons of Unemployment Insurance

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

The table below compares eligibility requirements for regular Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) and the availability of certain benefits.

Type of Unemployment U.S.
Citizen
Self-Employed, etc. Job Loss
Reason
Extra 13 Weeks $600 Bonus
Unemployment Insurance (UI) Yes No Not your fault Maybe No
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) Yes Yes COVID-19 Yes Yes

Source: U.S. Department of Labor and CareerOneStop 

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), also 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 “work activity” as defined by the state.

Each state runs its own TANF program and decides who is eligible. To sign up for benefits, you can apply at your local county social services agency or call your state TANF office for local contact information. Importantly, qualifying for TANF does not disqualify you for other government benefits.

Pros of TANF

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

Cons of TANF

  • Income to qualify often too low
  • Can create a negative social stigma
  • Uneven coverage due to individual state rules
  • May discourage job seeking

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

Social Security Disability Benefits (SSDI)

Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are paid 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

  • Increased monthly income
  • Freezes Social Security earnings record
  • Income possibly tax free
  • Provides rehab and back-to-work incentives

Cons of SSDI

  • Long time to process and approve SSDI claims
  • Low income
  • Medical Improvement Expected (MIE) status renewable every six months
  • 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 also include Medicaid coverage as well as food stamps.

SSI qualification requirements, which are spelled out on the SSI eligibility webpage, generally require you to be:

  • 65 or older,
  • Blind, or
  • Disabled

In addition, you must:

  • Have limited income
  • Have limited resources, and
  • Be a U.S. citizen or national or in one of certain categories of aliens.

The SSI Application Process webpage explains how to apply and includes an extensive How Someone Can Help You With Your SSI section.

Pros of SSI

  • Benefits set at federal level, not 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 negatively affected by living arrangements
  • Significant documentation needed to qualify
  • Claims and appeals process often slow
  • Significant asset restriction rules

The table below compares Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) with both Social Security Disability Benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in regard to 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
Yes
SSDI No No Disabled Yes Yes
SSI Yes No Any Yes No

Source: USA.gov and 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 need.

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 webpage. The Federal Student Aid Application Process begins with FAFSA.

Pros of Student Financial Aid

  • Help paying for college
  • Deferment for federal loans
  • Opportunity to attend better colleges
  • Creates good credit for loans paid on time

Cons of Student Financial Aid

  • Loan repayment required
  • Lifetime limits on Pell grants
  • Private loans more expensive and restrictive
  • Defaulting on loans hurts credit

Subsidized Rental Housing

Three forms of subsidized rental housing exist: Privately Owned Subsidized Housing, Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program (formerly Section 8), and HUD public housing. With privately owned housing you find the housing and apply at the rental office. You can search for housing at resources.HUD.gov. With Housing Choice you find your own apartment or house, and then the government pays the amount for which you qualify, with you paying 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 Section 8 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 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, senior citizen, or have a disability
  • Fall within program income limits
  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen

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

  • Contact the local Public Housing Agency (PHA)
  • Complete an application (income, family size, employer, bank)
  • Provide documentation (photo ID, birth certificates, tax returns)

Pros of Subsidized Rental Housing

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

Cons of Subsidized Rental Housing

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

The table below compares all three housing programs and 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

Source: USA.gov

Home Ownership Programs

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has several programs designed to help you purchase a home if you qualify.

FHA Loans

One part of HUD known as 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 having 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, as the FHA doesn’t actually lend the money. 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. 

Home Ownership Vouchers

The HUD Homeownership Voucher Program lets low-income families in the HCV program, including those in public housing, use their voucher to meet monthly mortgage payments and other expenses when buying a home for the first time. Contact your local Public Housing Agency (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 loan. A certificate of eligibility (COE) is required and can be applied for through the Veterans Administration.

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 and/or with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  

State 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 give advice 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 decision PHA decision Yes
Active Duty/Veterans 620 by lender 41% Yes

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs  

Pros of Government Home Ownership Programs

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

Cons of Government Home Ownership Programs

  • Higher mortgage insurance costs (except VA)
  • Restrictive government property standards
  • Limited to primary residence
  • Not competitive with multiple offers

Foreclosure/Eviction

If you are facing foreclosure or eviction as a result of the coronavirus, government help is available. Renters can get assistance from the federal, state, and local governments, mostly through a moratorium on evictions. Homeowners facing foreclosure can get help as well. Some programs, such as those through the Coronavirius Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, are specific to the coronavirus emergency. Others have been around, including many available at state and local levels.

Food

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. Some programs have changed the rules during the coronavirus emergency.

Immediate Aid

If you need food quickly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (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. ET.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP (previously known as food stamps) helps needy families supplement their food budget in order 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. However, see special Coronavirus Food Program Waivers below.

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

WIC provides low-income women and their young children healthy food, nutrition counseling, and referral to health, welfare, and social services agencies. WIC is a federal grant program administered by the government through 90 WIC agencies and approximately 47,000 WIC retailers. To be eligible the mother must be pregnant, nursing, or postpartum (up to six months after birth) with infants (up to one-year-old) or children (under the age of five years). There are additional income requirements posted on the WIC FAQ webpage.

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.

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 on a monthly basis. You must be 60 years of age or older and live in an area that offers either program in order to apply. Both program have income limits. For more information, use the USDA State Contacts List.

Pros of Government Food Programs

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

Cons of Government Food Programs

  • Social stigma for recipients
  • 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 due in under six months
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
Must meet state guidelines

Source: USA.gov

Coronavirus Food Program Waivers

The USDA has granted states flexibility with the administration of several food programs during the coronavirus emergency. This flexibility includes:

Additional coronavirus-related steps taken by the USDA include:

Healthcare

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

Medicare is the main healthcare option for those 65 and older. 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/or requirements with your human resources office. You can also consult Applying for Medicare Only on the Social Security website. If you are applying for Social Security and Medicare simultaneously, use the link under Social Security below.

ACA Health Insurance Marketplace

Healthcare.gov is home to the Health Insurance Marketplace, created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), an Obama administration program designed to provide affordable health insurance 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.

Normally, the Marketplace has an annual enrollment period to obtain or change coverage. The next regular enrollment period will be from Nov. 1, 2020, through Dec. 15, 2020. However, if you lost your job, had your hours reduced, or were furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic, you may qualify for a special enrollment period to obtain coverage or change your plan.

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 through your state Medicaid agency.

Veterans Administration Healthcare

The primary criteria to receive VA healthcare benefits require that you be a military veteran or former member of the National Guard or Reserves 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 Department of Veteran Affairs Eligibility webpage.

COBRA

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 cost. When you lose your job, whatever your employer paid toward your health insurance goes away, and you have to pay the entire amount.

You have 60 days from job loss or reduction in hours to decide whether to accept COBRA coverage, which can last from 18 to 36 months, depending on the circumstances behind your job loss.

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 competition
  • 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 USA.gov State Health Departments link to find out what is offered in your state, information about eligibility requirements, and how to apply.

Retirement

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 not covered by Social Security.

Social Security

Most people are familiar with Social Security and the fact that you apply for benefits at a certain age, depending on when you were born and whether you want to receive partial or full benefits. You can apply for benefits for yourself or as a spouse if you meet the following four requirements:

  • You are at least 61 years and nine 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 webpage provides complete information depending on how close you are to retirement.

Taxes

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

Free File

If your adjusted gross income is $69,000 or below, you can file federal and, in many cases, state returns online at no cost to you. The process and what you need to have to file are all explained in this FreeFile Infographic. Get help choosing a product using the FreeFile Online Lookup Tool.

With income above $69,000, you can still use the FreeFile Fillable Forms tool to prepare your taxes, as long as you are comfortable with doing your own taxes 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 Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE). Both offer free tax-preparation assistance to qualified individuals. VITA generally applies to you if your income is $56,000 or less, you are disabled, or you have limited English-speaking skills. TCE is for citizens age 60 or older.

You can find VITA and TCE program sites using either the IRS TCE/VITA Locator Tool or the AARP Tax-Aid Site Locator Tool.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all TCE sites and many VITA sites are closed until further notice. Use the VITA Locator Tool to find out if a site near you is open.

IRS People First Initiative

With the challenges of the coronavirus in the news, the IRS recently launched a program known as the People First Initiative, which consists of a number of steps designed to provide relief on payment and postponing certain compliance actions. This initiative is in addition to the extended tax filing and payment deadline of July 15, 2020. Additional information can be found on the IRS People First Initiative FAQ webpage.

Financial Assistance for Small Business

Small businesses are the beneficiaries of several long-standing government assistance loan programs, most of them originating from the Small Business Administration (SBA). In addition to the historical help these programs have provided, many also now offer special coronavirus-related assistance.

Small Business Administration (SBA)

Many owners of SMBs know about the main SBA loan programs, especially considering all the publicity the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programs have received. The SBA, however, has much more to offer than coronavirus relief. Other SBA loan programs include the SBA Express Bridge Loan, SBA Debt Relief, and more, including access to funding to launch, manage, and grow your business. Full details, including eligibility, can be found on the SBA home page.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA offers a number of 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 webpage.

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

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

Cons of Government Business Programs

  • Loan amount may be small
  • Long approval process
  • Personal guarantee often required
  • Good credit usually 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, only 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 do’s and don’ts:

  • Do write down the phone number.
  • Do register at the National Do Not Call Registry.
  • Do 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 of a claim to be from the government.