How 211 Can Help With Your Finances

The free service can connect you to a variety of options for help

When financial difficulties arise, help may be just a phone call away. However, rather than dialing 911, as you would in an emergency, you can call 211 to access services in your local community. By calling 211, you can access a variety of social programs that may aid with you a variety of financial difficulties.

Key Takeaways

  • 211 is a federally designated number for finding social service referrals and other forms of assistance.
  • The 211 program covers all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
  • 211 services are designed to help families with children, people with disabilities, older Americans, youth, and anyone else needing access to financial or social services assistance.
  • Dialing 211 can allow you to connect with service providers and resources in your local area.
  • 211 can be used even if you are not a native English speaker, new to your community, or have limited reading skills.

What Is 211?

The 211 network represents a collection of agencies that work together to help make it easier for people in need to find resources and assistance. Callers who dial 211 can be referred to or connected with local agencies that can provide help.

This free service is available to most of the U.S. population covering all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The 211 service is designed to help a wide range of individuals, including those who are elderly, disabled, or experiencing a personal crisis. Individuals can all in even if they are not fluent in English, new to their community, or have limited reading skills.

For example, 211 can provide help to veterans, individuals struggling with mental illnesses or special needs, people experiencing domestic violence, individuals who have experienced a natural disaster, and ex-offenders who need help with reentry into society after being incarcerated. The program is supported by a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Goodwill and United Way. It’s estimated that 211 responded to as many as 23 million requests in 2021, the most recent year aggregate information has been communicated.

There are no qualification requirements to use 211; anyone in need can dial the number to find out which resources might be available.

History of 211

The history of 211 in the United States dates back to the late 1990s, when a coalition of United Way organizations and other community-based groups recognized the need for a national helpline that could connect people in need to community resources and services. In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated "211" as the national abbreviated dialing code for community services.

The first 211 service was launched in Atlanta, Georgia in 1998, and other communities soon followed suit. However, the lack of a centralized system and funding made it difficult for 211 to expand nationally.

In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated 211 as a three-digit number for referrals to social services and other forms of assistance. By calling this number, individuals can get connected with a variety of options for help, including federal, state, and local programs that offer financial assistance.

In 2005, the FCC issued a report recommending the creation of a nationwide 211 system, and in 2006, Congress passed the "Calling for 2-1-1 Act," which authorized federal funding for 211 services. Today, the program has proliferated across the United States, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has since approved the use of 211 as well.

211 Financial Assistance

The 211 network operates by offering referrals for different types of assistance, both financial and nonfinancial. If you need help paying bills, buying food, or have another financial issue with which you’re struggling, 211 may be able to connect you with appropriate financial assistance organizations or programs. That includes making referrals for people who need help with:

  • Making rent or mortgage payments
  • Paying utilities (including electric bills, gas bills, propane bills, and water bills)
  • Applying for Medicaid or Medicare assistance
  • Getting health insurance
  • Covering childcare expenses
  • Paying for medical care or prescription drugs
  • Purchasing food
  • Getting gas money or bus fare
  • Preventing homelessness
  • Paying burial and cremation expenses
  • Training or transportation assistance to get to work
  • Applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

For example, say you need help paying your electric bill because you’ve been laid off from your job. If you call 211, they may refer you to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which is a federal program that provides funding to local agencies to help with home energy bills, energy crises, weatherization, and minor energy-related home repairs.

As another example, say you're struggling with food insecurity. The 211 connection may be able to refer you to your local social services department so that you can apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or provide you with a list of food pantries or food banks in your area. You can also get assistance with applying for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which offers supplemental food assistance.

Dialing 211 could also help you connect with a nonprofit debt counselor if you’re having trouble with credit cards or loans. A nonprofit credit counselor can review your financial situation, including your budget, spending habits, and debts, to help you come up with a realistic solution for managing it. You can also get referrals for debt counseling through 211 if you’re struggling to make mortgage payments and are in danger of falling into foreclosure.

The 211 network doesn’t offer help directly. Instead, it acts as a shortcut for people who need financial assistance but don’t know how to access it.

Other Types of Help Offered by 211

The 211 network encompasses a broad range of organizations, including those that offer referrals for financial assistance. Beyond that, you can also call 211 if you need access to:

  • Mental health resources
  • Drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation programs
  • Elderly care support
  • Child, youth, or family support
  • Suicide prevention services
  • Work assistance services

Limitations of 211

Though 211 is available in almost all areas of the United States, coverage does vary within each state. 211 is not available in all areas. In addition, some centers may not offer services in other languages. Language barriers can make it difficult for people with limited English proficiency to access the information and resources they need.

Due to limited resources and staff, 211 centers may have limited capacity to provide assistance to all callers. During times of high call volume or emergencies, wait times may be longer. In these cases, some callers may not be able to reach a representative. There may also be some limitations based on local availability, eligibility criteria, and other factors that change the types of programs that are offered in different areas.

Last, though 211 strives to maintain confidentiality, there may be certain situations where confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. For instance, consider situations where the agency may be legally obligated to report certain information to different agencies. In addition, 211 is obligated to notify appropriate parties when there is a risk of harm to the caller or others.

How to Get Help from 211

If you need financial assistance, you can start by dialing 211. Your call is then routed to a local or regional calling center. A 211 center referral specialist will ask what kind of help you need, then either refer you to or connect you with an appropriate agency or organization that can help. You can also look for help online. Just enter your ZIP code on the 211 website to see which resources may be available near you.

Once you’ve been referred, you may need to take additional steps to get help. For example, if you’re trying to qualify for SNAP benefits, you’ll need to complete an application with your local social services department. If you’re working with a debt counselor, they may schedule an interview by phone to discuss your debt and financial situation.

Keep in mind that getting a referral from 211 doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll qualify for benefits. Many social services programs base qualification on income, household size, and/or financial assets. If you’re not eligible for help because you earn too much money or have too many assets, 211 suggests calling back to discuss what other options might be available.

What Is 211?

211 is a service that provides referrals to a network of organizations for financial assistance and social services programs free of charge. The 211 network covers all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

What Kind of Financial Assistance Does 211 Provide?

While 211 does not offer financial assistance directly, the service can connect you with organizations or agencies that do. Some of the situations for which 211 may be able to offer referrals include rent and mortgage assistance, utility assistance, food assistance, transportation assistance, and homelessness prevention.

How Do I Get Help From 211?

You can simply dial the number from a mobile phone or landline. Your call is routed to a local or regional calling center. A referral specialist will ask you questions about what type of help you need, then attempt to match you with an appropriate agency or organization in your area.

Is My Personal Information Safe When Using 211?

211 is a confidential service. You don’t have to disclose information about yourself or your family if you would prefer not to do so. The 211 call center specialists can still provide referrals even if you choose to make calls anonymously.

The Bottom Line

211 connects callers, at no cost, to critical health and human services in their community. Where 911 is used for more urgent emergencies, 211 is a resource individuals can use for a variety of services including getting help on financial assistance. This resource can guide individuals to a range of programs to help prevent homelessness, aid job training, make mortgage payments, or get healthcare coverage.

Article Sources
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  2. United Way. “211.”

  3. Federal Communications Commission. "FCC 97-51."

  4. United Way. "Our History."

  5. “About 211.”

  6. United States Congress. "H.R. 211 - 111th Congress."

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  8. United Way 211. “Financial Assistance Programs.”

  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. “Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).”

  10. “Find Help Near You.”

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