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There is a wide variety of government assistance programs available to help make life more affordable for those in need. Many in the United States struggle as a result of economic hardship: About 40 million Americans live below the poverty line—a little over 12% of the U.S. population—according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If you're struggling financially, you might be eligible for government assistance. Read on to find out what options are available to you.
If you lose your job, you might be eligible for benefits through the U.S. Department of Labor's unemployment insurance program. This program provides cash benefits for a limited time to people who recently lost a job through no fault of their own. If you lost your job for some other reason—for example, if you were fired or you quit—it's possible you could still be eligible for benefits, but it'll likely require an investigation and more paperwork. What if you're self-employed? As long as you have the proper documentation and fit the eligibility requirements, there's a chance you can qualify.
Each state sets its own unemployment benefits eligibility guidelines, so you should file your claim with the state where you worked. If you worked in a different state from where you now live, you should still reach out to your current state's unemployment agency to ask about how to file your claim with other states.
If you recently lost your job, contact the unemployment insurance program as soon as possible: There's usually a lag time of two to three weeks between when you file your claim and when you receive your first benefit check—though it could take longer. To hasten the process, get organized. No matter which state you apply in, you'll at least need to document your work history, the address of your former employer and the dates you worked there, and identification such as a driver's license or passport. To file a claim and apply for unemployment, visit your state's website.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
SSI is a federal program that helps support low-income Americans who are blind, disabled or 65 years of age or older and unable to provide for themselves. SSI cash benefits are paid out monthly and are intended to cover basic needs like food, housing and clothing. SSI is different from Social Security, which determines eligibility based on your work history. Some people who are eligible for SSI might also be eligible for Social Security benefits, but they're different programs. You can take a short quiz on the Social Security Administration website to find out if you meet eligibility requirements for SSI.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
TANF is a program focused on helping to support eligible families with a monthly cash payment to cover basic needs. There are usually limits on how long you can get the payments (rules vary by state), so make sure you have a plan in place to make ends meet. Like many other assistance programs, you'll need to look up the state you live in to see the list of eligibility requirements and apply locally.
Child Tax Credit
The child tax credit is a tax benefit that helps people support their families. Due to the increased hardship many families face during the pandemic, the federal government increased the benefit to up to $3,600 per child for 2021. The updated child tax program also includes an advance of the tax credit, paid out on a monthly basis to eligible families with children younger than 18 years of age in 2021. You can check to see if you're enrolled to receive payments on the IRS website.
Earned income tax credit (EITC)
EITC provides some relief for low- to moderate-income workers and families. At tax time, you apply the credit directly toward your tax bill, and if you're eligible, you'll likely get a refund. You can check to see if you qualify by using this tool on the IRS website.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Sometimes called "food stamps," the SNAP program provides food benefits to low-income families. To get SNAP benefits, you'll need to apply through your state's program. Each state has a different application form and process, and you'll have to meet certain requirements (like income limits). Additionally, there may be rules about how long you can receive SNAP that vary by state.
If your income is low and you need help with medical costs for you or your family, you might be eligible for additional programs focused on meeting the health needs of Americans with limited income.
- Medicaid: Medicaid provides free or low-cost health care to those with low income including people with disabilities, children, pregnant women and the elderly. You can apply through the government's health insurance marketplace or through your local state agency.
- Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP): CHIP is a government health care program that fills the gap between Medicaid and private insurance to cover uninsured children in families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private health insurance. You can apply to CHIP the same ways you apply for Medicaid.
Who's Eligible for Government Financial Assistance?
There are many government benefit programs, and all of them have their own requirements you need to meet. For example, there may be requirements that have to do with citizenship status, family size or income. Luckily, a lot of programs require many of the same types of documents—government-issued photo IDs, passports, employment authorization cards and pay stubs, for instance. Check with your state agency's local office to confirm your eligibility. You can also get a sense of whether you'll qualify or not by doing your research ahead of time.
What to Watch Out For
One note of caution: Despite what you may have heard, the government doesn't give out loans or grants directly to citizens. Don't share your personal or financial information with anyone claiming otherwise. It can seem like a hassle to go through the official channels for government benefits, but it will save you a lot of trouble in the future.
The Bottom Line
If you're struggling financially, it's important to know what options are available to you. The federal government offers a wide variety of assistance programs geared toward helping those in need with the basic necessities—from food and housing to medical care. There's no shame in reaching out for assistance when times get tough. Most government assistance programs have time limits on them, so being proactive about your financial situation and planning ahead can help you build a solid foundation, no matter what season of life you're in.