What Are the Requirements for Applying for Public Assistance?

What Are the Requirements for Applying for Public Assistance?
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When Americans run into financial difficulties, they sometimes are eligible to apply for public assistance. However, applicants have to meet all the requirements of the public assistance program they elect to use. Those who have not been on public assistance may not be aware of what these requirements are, and as requirements can change from year to year, even experienced beneficiaries need to stay abreast of program modifications.

Programs Available

Public assistance encompasses dozens of government programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Housing of Choice (Section 8). Through these programs, you can get help with basics like food and shelter. You also can get help for things like child care, medical expenses and unemployment. Cash allotments also are given that cover expenses like utilities. Every single public assistance program has different requirements, so you cannot assume the stipulations for one program are applicable to any others.


A basic requirement of most public assistance programs is a low income. What qualifies as "low" depends on the program and varies by state. All states regulate their own welfare programs. Most programs use the current federal poverty level as a guide. Usually, income limits are between 130 to 180 percent of poverty. The majority of public assistance programs use both your gross and net income when determining eligibility.

Family Size

Under most public assistance programs, your benefit amount increases proportionally based on the number of people in your household. For this reason, you must tell your caseworker how many people live with you.


The government usually reserves public assistance funds for those who are in greatest financial need. Some programs are designed for special circumstances. Under these programs, you usually need to be pregnant, homeless, unemployed or demonstrate other legitimate emergency situations.

Residency and Citizenship

Public assistance from the government usually requires you to be a United States citizen or a legal immigrant. You must provide evidence of residency. Some exceptions exist, such as if you are a refugee. The government examines these applications on a case-by-case basis.


All public assistance programs verify your application claims and identity. You must bring documents like pay stubs, letters from the Social Security Administration, your driver's license or other identification and utility bills to the organization through which you are applying. Failure to produce these records, or submitting false documents, may slow approval or disqualify you from receiving benefits altogether.

Nongovernment Programs

Many communities offer public assistance through local nonprofit organizations like churches and outreach centers. As with government programs, application requirements for this assistance varies. Receiving aid from these groups may be a better option than government programs if you only need help temporarily, the amount you need is small or the type of help you need isn't covered by state and federal programs. In some cases, there are virtually no requirements -- for example, a soup kitchen may give out meals or groceries to anyone but operate on a first come, first served basis.