Government agencies provide “free money” -- also known as grants or assistance programs -- to help people overcome short-term crises. These services provide a bridge for families and single people who find themselves in difficult economic straits due to adversity such as unemployment, illness, personal tragedy or a natural disaster. Long-term assistance is available for low-income, elderly and disabled citizens. The Federal Poverty Guidelines determine eligibility for some programs: The 2015 threshhold for a single-person household is $11,770, for a family of two it is $15,930, for a household of three it is $20,090, and a for a family of four it is $24,250.
What Kind of Help
Assistance programs can provide money for utilities, health care, rent or mortgage payments, food, home repair, legal advice and help with debts and taxes. You also can find help to pay for educational expenses that lead to meaningful employment. Make a list of what you need -- rent or mortgage money, food for you or family members, advice on how to handle an eviction or utility shut off notice, shelter, transportation, or assistance with a medical issue. Many agencies will ask you right up front to make a list of needs and then try to help find them.
Where to Start
If you don’t have access to the Internet or a phone book, your local library can provide some information, free Internet access and even assistance finding programs online. In an emergency, you can start with the telephone book and look under emergency assistance for a local number. Some programs are available in all states, while others are available only in certain states.
The Right Information
The U.S. government provides online information about available programs in each state. For-profit and nonprofit organizations also provide free information and easy ways to find out what sort of help is available in your area. For instance, Need Help Paying Bills.com provides a state-by-state summary of available resources and helpful links that bring you directly to addresses, telephone numbers and websites that explain eligibility and what sort of assistance is available.
What If I Don't Qualify?
If you don’t qualify for direct government assistance, local charities and churches receive government money to help you buy medicines, gasoline and food for a short period of time. If you can’t find information online, ask for referrals from state or federal agencies when you call or visit to find resources if you cannot obtain money directly.
What You Will Need
Government and nonprofit agencies will ask questions about your resources, such as assets you own, assistance from other agencies and help you are receiving from family members. Gather together a picture ID, proof of residency, proof of income and social security numbers for you and all dependents in your household that need assistance.
A good place to start is at your local Social Security office if you are elderly, have a low income or have no income and dependents. The U.S. welfare system provides money to help pay rent and utilities. Each state provides welfare assistance from food stamps, AFDC, TANF, and other such programs. The LIHEAP program helps eligible low-income, working poor and senior families with paying their utility bills. The amount of assistance you receive depends upon your income and the number of dependents in your household.
The Cost of Free Money
Nothing in life truly is free -- it takes work and the right attitude to find assistance. You may need to seek help from more than one agency to help solve your economic crisis. Try to stay organized. Keep a folder with all your documents and printouts from the agencies you visit. Also, make sure you write down the names of the people that are helping you -- this can be very important to help you verify and keep track of information. Thank everyone for the information or assistance they provide. If you experience emotional distress such as anxiety or depression, call a crisis center or a life-line organization for help.
A native of New Orleans, Amanda Petrona holds a Bachelor of Science in anthropology/social psychology and Master of Arts in English. She taught writing, research and literature at LSU Baton Rouge. Petrona founded Wild Spirit Louisiana, an organic farm, nature conservatory, and education center for sustainable and holistic living.