Should You Apply for Government Assistance?

It’s been 40 years since the United States experienced annual inflation as high as it’s been during the first half of 2022. It hit 8.6% in May, a level that hasn’t been seen since 1981 when annual inflation was 8.9%.

Compounding the problem of rising grocery and utility bills is a spike in gas prices. Nationwide, the cost of regular gasoline surged to just shy of $5 as of June 13, 2022, according to AAA data.

For the millions of families living paycheck to paycheck, rising prices are more than an inconvenience. They can make it difficult to meet basic needs and pay for critical expenses such as child care, transportation and electricity.

“With the rising prices in housing, gas, groceries and more, Americans are left with the daunting question: ‘What now?,'” says Amani Wells-Onyioha, partner and operations director for Sole Strategies, a firm that provides political fundraising and marketing services. She says government assistance seems like a logical solution, but eligibility in some states and for some programs may be limited.

Still, for those who are struggling to make ends meet, public programs remain a crucial lifeline and shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed as inaccessible. The government offers assistance to families in many ways, ranging from tax breaks for mortgages for homeowners to unemployment benefits.

Each program has its own eligibility criteria. “You might not qualify for rental assistance, but maybe you can get food stamps,” Wells-Onyioha says as an example.

Here’s a look at what help is available, when to apply and what you should do if you’re not eligible.

Major Public Assistance Programs

The government operates a number of public assistance programs, and these include federal programs administered by states as well as local initiatives.

The following are most likely to be applicable to those facing a temporary economic crisis.

TANF: Standing for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF funds are distributed by the federal government to states which then decide how to use them. The money can be used for cash assistance, transportation, employment training or other needs. TANF programs may go by a different name in each state, such as the Minnesota Family Investment Program, California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWorks) and Work First NJ.

SNAP: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program replaced what was previously known as food stamps. Today, families receive a debit card that can be used to pay for nonprepared foods and seeds from authorized retailers. SNAP benefits can also be used to pay for produce at participating farmers markets.

[READ: Is Fast Food Cheaper Than Cooking at Home?]

WIC: Short for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, the WIC program provides food assistance to low-income pregnant and postpartum women as well as infants and children up to age 5. The program served nearly half the infants born in the United States during fiscal year 2020, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Medicaid: For those with low incomes and limited assets, Medicaid provides free health insurance. The federal government requires that certain groups be covered by Medicaid, but many states have expanded eligibility in recent years so more people can be covered.

Child care: Government programs for child care may be funded through TANF and offer payment assistance for private care providers or access to government-run Early Head Start and Head Start programs. Early Head Start serves children up to age 3 while Head Start is for preschool-age students. Both programs have hours that can vary by state or region. “It can potentially fill a child care need,” says Krischa Esquivel, early learning manager for Child Care Resource Center which serves the greater San Fernando Valley and San Bernardino area of California.

Program Eligibility Varies by State

Before applying for assistance, people need to understand the eligibility requirements since they almost always have income guidelines.

“Most of these programs are based off the federal poverty guidelines,” explains Mark Reyes, senior manager of financial assistance for the mobile app Albert.

In the 48 contiguous states, the 2022 federal poverty level for a family of four is $27,750. “It’s a pretty low ceiling to start off,” Reyes says, but he adds that programs often aren’t limited to those earning less than the poverty limit. Instead, they may set their income guidelines as a percentage of that amount, such as 150% of the federal poverty level.

Income limits are only one restriction on program eligibility. States may also have asset limits and, in the case of TANF, there is a lifetime cap on the amount of assistance someone can receive. The federal government limits people to 60 months of TANF benefits during the course of their lifetime, but many states have a two- to three-year limit. To receive assistance, programs may also have work requirements that stipulate people be employed or working for a certain number of hours each week.

[Be Ready for the Unexpected With an Emergency Fund]

When to Apply for Assistance

People should consider applying as soon as they have trouble paying their obligations. Since some programs have asset limits, people will want to decide whether it makes sense to burn through savings in order to receive assistance. It also helps to become familiar with the federal poverty level to gauge your likelihood of being eligible.

Even those who are eligible may be hesitant to ask for help. “There’s a lot of societal stigmas that are intertwined with receiving assistance,” Reyes says.

However, the programs were created for a reason and can serve as a crucial safety net for families who are struggling financially. Declining to pursue available assistance could lead to other problems. Those under economic stress may become anxious, depressed or turn to substance abuse. What’s more, untreated chronic conditions can lead to complications that strain medical systems and may leave people disabled.

“We are living in a crazy time, and everyone deserves to be fed,” Wells-Onyioha says. After paying into the system, workers shouldn’t be ashamed to use the programs their money has helped fund. “These are your taxpayer dollars,” she says.

[SEE: Best Money-Saving Apps]

Where to Find Help

For those who have never applied for public assistance, the process can be overwhelming. The government website Benefits.gov can be a good place to start. It maintains a comprehensive listing of assistance programs by state, along with links for additional information.

While the application process can vary, many states now accept online applications for their programs. Some communities have 211 numbers which will connect callers to community agencies such as the United Way or other referral organizations. For example, Esquivel says the Child Care Resource Center can direct families in its California service area to other resources if needed.

Not everyone will be eligible for public assistance, but there may be other avenues for help through private organizations. “Thank goodness there are so many different types of mutual aid organizations and nonprofits,” Wells-Onyioha says. Food pantries, churches and even schools may offer assistance and have eligibility criteria that extends beyond what is required by the government.

Utilities, mortgage companies and landlords may also have their own programs to help those facing economic hardship. Reyes notes SoCalGas offers a 20% discount to income-eligible customers, and he adds there may be consumer protections in some states that prohibit utilities from disconnecting services under certain circumstances.

While government assistance can provide support during difficult times, families may need to look for a long-term solution if inflation continues to rise. Albert offers a Genius feature to provide affordable access to financial professionals who can help people determine how to cut expenses and make smart money decisions, Reyes says. Or there are a number of free budgeting apps that may also be helpful for those who want to track expenses and rein in costs.

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Should You Apply for Government Assistance? originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 06/14/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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