Welfare programs are commonly referred to as public assistance programs. There is no single federal welfare program; instead, there are a variety of assistance programs designed to help low income families and individuals. Although the government sets guidelines for the programs, requirements and eligibility vary among states. Under the current public assistance programs, qualified households can receive help with food, housing, health care and other basic needs.
Public Assistance Overview
Public assistance programs are offered to help low-income households make ends meet. The state defines what is considered low income, based on household size and the median area income. Each assistance program has its own requirements and eligibility guidelines. Just because you may qualify for one program does not mean you will automatically qualify for others. For instance, you may meet the income requirements for food assistance, but earn too much for cash assistance. You can apply for benefits in your state by contacting your local Department of Social Services. You can typically apply in person, online or through the mail.
The most common public assistance programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid. SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, provides money for food and groceries. TANF is a cash assistance program. There are no restrictions or requirements on how the recipient spends the cash. Medicaid is the health care program for people who cannot afford health insurance. The names of the programs may differ in some states. For example, the California Medicaid program is called Medi-Cal. Public Housing Authorities administer housing programs, including the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. There are also programs available to help with utilities, such as the Weatherization Program.
Rights of Recipients and Applicants
U.S. citizens and legal immigrants have the right to receive public assistance. Public assistance applicants and recipients are protected from discrimination; if you feel you are being discriminated against, you have the right to file a complaint. You have the right to be treated with courtesy and respect. Your information must be kept confidential. You have the right to understand what is happening during the application process. You also have the right to receive written and oral explanations about your application or benefits. You are entitled to see your case records. You can appeal any decision that denies, reduces, or terminates your benefits. You are entitled to a fair hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.
The term "welfare" had been negatively associated with free money for the poor and those who choose not to work. In 1996, the Welfare Reform Act was signed into law to place a time limit on benefits and tighten the requirements for able-bodied recipients. The assistance is not intended to be a long-term solution. To receive cash assistance through the TANF program, recipients must find work within two years. Some states require TANF recipients to work or perform a work equivalent, such as community service.
- USDA: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
- California Department of Social Services: Your Rights Under California Welfare Programs
- Legal Services of North Dakota: What Are Basic Public Assistance Rights
- Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare: Apply for Benefits
- Montana Public Health and Human Services: Public Assistance Programs
- MDCR: An Update on State Welfare Time-Limit Policies and Their Effects on Families
- Colorado Department of Human Services: Office of Appeals Section
Jeannine Mancini, a Florida native, has been writing business and personal finance articles since 2003. Her articles have been published in the Florida Today and Orlando Sentinel. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Central Florida.