What is Welfare?

The Welfare Program in the US is a system that has been created to improve the quality of life - as well as general living standards - for the underprivileged and low income households.

However, the welfare system has extended beyond basic poverty and offers assistance to the disabled, the elderly, students, and unpaid workers like stay-at-home mothers. In fact, everyone may reach a point in their life when times are tough and they could use a little help.

The US Welfare system began during the Great Depression in the 1930's as a government-managed and federally-funded program aimed at providing aid to those with limited or no income.

In 1996, a reform law was passed by Congress giving control over the welfare system back to the states. This was in large part due to controversial talk of individuals allegedly abusing the system to receive better benefits from it.

How Does Welfare Work?

For most welfare programs you must complete a formal application for review by contacting your state Human Service Department. This department may also be known as Family Services. An appointment will be made with a case worker in the local office to review your application.

During your appointment you should be prepared to present proof of income, utility bills, proof of residency, and a government-issued ID. Once your application is reviewed, if you meet the income and resource limitations requirements you should progress to the next step in receiving benefits.

Some welfare programs may require the head of household to maintain employment or job training in order to receive the benefits. In the case of programs like food stamps, there are limitations in how the stamps may be spent. When you receive your benefits the usage rules will be laid out for you.

Eligibility Standards For Receiving Welfare Benefits:

In order to keep the welfare program fair and functioning, there are certain standards for receiving benefits from the various programs.

While each state may vary slightly, the basic requirements include:

  • The head of household must be at least 18 years old
  • The recipient must be a legal citizen of the US, or must be a qualifying non-citizen legal resident
  • The recipient must be a legal and permanent resident of the state in which welfare has been applied for
  • All financials must be disclosed up front including all bank accounts, and items of significant value such as electronics or jewelry
  • A general lack of employment due to a lack of job opportunities in the area, or the lack of an employable job skill
  • A basic commitment, and agreement with the welfare program, that the head of household must work towards becoming self-sufficient within a designated time-frame as determined by the situation and program guidelines
  • A signed agreement must be completed by the heads of household stating that they will comply with all requirements set forth by the program in order to receive the benefits
  • All dependent children listed must be living in the household in order to be considered part of the benefit recipients, though there are a few exceptions that exist
  • All minors in the household must attend school per the school district guidelines
  • Minors and dependents must have received appropriate immunizations

What Are The Welfare Programs Available?

Medicaid: an affordable fee based service available to low income families and those on disability to assist with medical expenses.

Eligibility rules vary by state, as does coverage, but medicaid typically covers lab services including x-rays, inpatient and outpatient services, health screenings for children, dental and vision for children, family planning, and prescription drugs.

Medicare: a system of health insurance, federally managed, for elderly over 65 years of age, or for people with disabilities.

Medicare assists with inpatient hospital care, nursing facilities, and hospice, as part of services previously paid via taxes during employment in the US. Additional coverage for a small fee covers doctor services, outpatient care, medical equipment, preventative services, and prescription drugs.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps: a federally funded program available to families with limited income to assist in covering the cost of groceries.

The program has strict guidelines on what items may be purchased with the stamps, as it is a system meant to help provide nutritional needs for the household.

Energy or Utility Assistance: a program built to assist with the cost of basic utility needs (heat, electricity, gas, water) that is used either to supplement part of the costs, or provide complete coverage as needed.

Housing and Urban Development (HUD): a federally funded program with the mission of providing quality and affordable homes for everyone. HUD assists with affordable home purchases as well as HUD approved rental properties for low income individuals and families.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): a program, formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, providing cash assistance to low income families and pregnant women, but with a time limit on receiving benefits. The cash assistance is to help with utilities, housing, and clothing costs for the child's basic needs. TANF is typically available for a maximum of 60 months during a person's lifetime.

Head Start: a federal program built to assist with education for low income families and underprivileged preschool students. Head Start is operated locally by non-profit organizations in most every county across the US.

Qualifying children will be able to participate in educational activities as well as free medical and dental care, and nutritional meals. Head Start services also meet the needs of special needs children with disabilities.

Work Study: a federally funded program built to assist with education for students from a low income family. Work Study is a part-time work program providing financial funding at the university education level. Students can apply to join the work program via their college to earn funds to use towards tuition and other education expenses.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): a program available to the elderly or disabled who have low income and limited resources. This program is not the same as social security and is not paid via social security taxes. SSI is meant to assist with basic needs for food, clothing, and housing.

Social Security: It may be surprising to many that social security is considered a part of the welfare programs. Social security is a benefit paid via taxes for the elderly or disabled who have previously worked. As a federal insurance program, social security provides benefits to people who are retired, unemployed, or disabled.

Child Care and Support Program: a program that is state regulated providing child care placement assistance to help parents have the time for job training and employment opportunities. This program is often used as supplemental coverage of child care fees, or in some cases complete coverage.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Poverty, Economic Struggles and Hardship

Natural Disasters



Single Parenting

Single Parenting by Choice


Special Needs Parenting

Child Protective Services


Additional Resources For Welfare and Family Assistance Programs:

Nutritional Assistance Programs:

Feeding America National Office: the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity. Their mission is to feed America's hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger. 1-800-771-2303

Food Banks of Canada - National organization representing and supporting food banks across Canada. 1-877-535-0958

Bountiful Baskets Food Co-op: Available in: AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, OK, OR, SD, TX, UT, WA, WY

USDA Food & Nutrition Service - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Food stamps program sponsored by the US Government

USDA Food & Nutrition Service - Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income women and their children (up to age 5)

The Global FoodBanking Network - Links to food banks worldwide

Supplemental Income and Health Care Assistance

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) - provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter for the elderly, blind, or disabled who have little to no income. This is NOT funded by Social Security, but by a tax-payer funded government program.

Social Security Disability Insurance - provides benefits to individuals who have worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes, but are no longer able to work either due to disability or age (67 or above). Also provides benefits to family members (spouse and/or children 18 and younger), as long as the individual worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes.

Medicare - Health insurance for people 65 or older, people under 65 with certain disabilities, people of any age with end-stage renal disease

Medicaid - Free or low-cost health insurance for individuals and families who meet certain income level requirements

Utilities Assistance

Utility Bill Assistance - Information on how to reduce energy costs and links to services by state in the US for assistance with utility bills.

Employment Assistance

CareerOneStop is sponsored by the U. S. Department of Labor,Employment and Training Administration

1-877-889-5627 TTY1-8

Service Canada: Offers access to wide range of services in Canada, including employment assistance, government programs, and health care benefits

1-800-926-9105 TTYJOBS

Dress for Success - provides women who are re-entering the work force with interview-appropriate clothing and shoes, as well as advice on how to ace that interview.

General Assistance

Volunteers of America - provides a variety of services to people in need, including at-risk youth, the elderly, men and women returning from prison, homeless individuals, veterans, people with disabilities and those recovering from addiction.

USA.Gov Directory of Government Benefits, Grants, and Financial Aid  - provides links to a variety of benefits, services, and information about government assistance programs

The Salvation Army - provides a wide variety of services, including, but not limited to:  housing and homeless services, disaster relief, and meals for the elderly

The Salvation Army – International  - provides information about services provided by the Salvation Army worldwide

Help for Moms - Information for single moms on how to find affordable housing, education, food stamps, and other services

US Department of Housing and Urban Development - provides information on finding affordable housing.