Benefits and Financial Assistance from the Government
Government benefits or assistance is often referred to as “welfare” but that term is generic and covers many programs that aid different categories of people.
Government assistance comes in many forms, including:
Social Security disability benefits
SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
Subsidized housing or housing vouchers
In general, qualifying for government assistance programs involves meeting certain criteria like income, citizenship, and additional state-imposed requirements (because states often administer federal program funding). Programs are either income-based (SNAP, TANF, housing subsidies, energy assistance) or entitlement programs that are based on previous employment contributions.
Income based “welfare” programs cost the federal government over $635 billion per year. The levels of federal spending on such programs varies over time, often based on political decisions. Major milestones in welfare eligibility in recent decades include:
the “man in the house” rule that cut benefits for families if an able-bodied man lived with the family in the 1960s (welfare is often blamed for promoting single parenthood);
President Ronald Regan pledged to end the tradition of citizens living on welfare indefinitely, ushering in an era of “workfare” or attempts to transition families from all-welfare income to working;
In 1996 President William Clinton followed through on workfare, giving individual states control over benefits, creating TANF which focused benefits on children rather than adults, and establishing a 5-year time limit to receiving benefits with an eye to ending welfare benefits;
the Trump administration proposed further cuts to benefit programs, particularly housing benefits, while emphasizing the theme of individual responsibility, which likely means shortening the term of payments or assistance.
Social Security Disability Benefits are determined by the severity of a person’s condition and his ability to do basic tasks required by a job, such as sitting, lifting, and remembering things. Some 10 million Americans have qualified for these payments, with the state of West Virginia and Alabama having the highest proportion of recipients. The program pays out $11.4 billion a month. An administrative office determines whether an individual qualifies, which includes making less than $1,200 a month, having a diagnosed medical problem, and having worked and contributed to the Social Security system in the past (for a certain number of years). Disabled children may also be eligible to claim Social Security disability benefits through their parents, and orphaned children may receive their parent’s benefit up to age 18. To determine your eligibility, go to ssa.gov.
Unemployment compensation are an example of an entitlement program that depends on previous earning levels. Those who have paid into the unemployment insurance program and who lost their jobs under qualifying conditions (those who are laid off are more often qualified to collect than those who are fired) may collect a portion of their previous wages for a specific period of time while searching for new employment. These benefits are paid out of a combination of federal and state funds. Individuals are usually required to check in weekly and provide evidence of an ongoing job search in order to continue receiving benefits. The benefits are generally designed to last two years at most, and an individual must then be employed for a period of years before qualifying again.
Veteran’s benefits are another entitlement program available only to those who have served in the army, navy, air force, marines, or coast guard and certain family members. The programs are administered through federal offices with the assistance of local individuals who provide guidance on filing paperwork. Benefits include medical, burial, educational, job training, and survivor’s compensation. To learn more, go to www.benefits.va.gov.
Aid to low income citizens
States are given latitude in how they distribute federal funding for some programs (while meeting federal requirements and usually matching a portion of the funding). States’ payouts of benefits can vary according to employment rates, cost of living there, and other factors.
TANF Programs that benefit low-income families and individuals generally have employment requirements as well as terminal duration of 2 to 5 years. Critics say the program doesn’t do enough to encourage the development of sustainable job skills or to keep up with the needs of families with children, shrinking from a high of 4.4 million families sustained in 1996 to 1.4 million families in 2016. Distributed as block grants to states, the federal component of the program has eroded over time, resulting in lower payments that, due to their lump sum nature, do not grow to accommodate hard times that disproportionately affect the poor, such as the recession of 2008. In order to qualify, which is handled at the state level, families must have at least one child under age 18 or a pregnant woman can receive benefits for the last 120 days of her pregnancy, and there are income and “resources” (property ownership) standards as well. Apply through your state website starting here: www.tanfprogram.com.
SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a “credit card” style benefit that replaced Food Stamps. Low income individuals may receive these benefits to be used on groceries and certain qualifying items (alcohol is not included, for instance) on a monthly basis. These funds may be received in addition to other programs, such as housing assistance or TANF. To determine if you’re eligible, check www.gettingfoodstamps.org.
Housing assistance is administered through the office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which requires an income test. Assistance may come in many forms, including rental assistance (financial help to pay rent) or placement in public housing, or vouchers. To see if you qualify, contact the housing office in your local area by starting at www.hud.gov. A related program helps defray the costs of heating and cooling your home, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Learn more about it at www.benefits.gov.