Top Federal Benefit and Assistance Programs

Let’s get this out of the way first: You will not get a "free government grant," and there are no federal government assistance programs, grants or loans to help people pay off credit card debt. However, there are federal government benefit programs available to help with many other life situations and needs.

Often lumped under the term “welfare,” assistance programs like food stamps and state Medicaid should not be confused with “entitlement” programs like Social Security. Welfare programs are based on a family’s combined income. A family’s income must be below the minimum income according to the federal poverty level. Eligibility for entitlement programs is based on the recipient’s prior contributions from payroll taxes. Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation are the four main U.S. entitlement programs.

Here you will find profiles, including basic eligibility criteria and contact information for some of the most popular federal benefit and assistance programs.

Social Security Retirement

Senior woman holding a bottle of pills
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Social Security retirement benefits paid to retired workers who have earned enough Social Security credits.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal government benefit program providing cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter to persons who are blind or otherwise disabled and have little or no other income.


Medicare is a health insurance program for people 65 years of age or older, some disabled people under 65 years, and people with End-Stage Renal Disease (permanent kidney failure treated with dialysis or a transplant).

Medicare Prescription Drug Program

Everyone with Medicare can get this coverage benefit that may help lower prescription drug costs and help protect against higher costs in the future.


The Medicaid Program provides medical benefits to low-income people who have no medical insurance or have inadequate medical insurance.

Stafford Student Loans

Stafford Student Loans are available for undergraduate and graduate students at virtually every college and university in America.

Food Stamps

The Food Stamp Program provides benefits to low-income people that they can use to buy food to improve their diets.

Emergency Food Assistance

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is a Federal program that helps supplement the diets of low-income needy individuals and families, including elderly people, by providing them with emergency food assistance at no cost.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is federally funded – state administered – financial assistance program for low income families with dependent children and for pregnant women in their last three months of pregnancy. TANF provides temporary financial assistance while also helping recipients find jobs that will allow them to support themselves.

Public Housing Assistance Program

The HUD Public Housing assistance program was established to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families. Public housing comes in all sizes and types, from scattered single family houses to highrise apartments for elderly families.

More Federal Benefit and Assistance Programs

While the Top Federal Benefit Programs may represent the meat-and-potatoes from the buffet of federal assistance programs offered by the U.S. government, there are many more benefit programs that fill out the menu from soup to desert.

Launched in 2002 as one of the first services of President George W. Bush’s “E-Government” initiative, the Benefit Finder is an online resource to help individuals find federal—and state—assistance benefits they may be eligible to receive.

Study Shows Welfare Prevents Crime

According to a research paper published in the June 2022 issue of, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, removing cash welfare from children when they reach age 18 greatly increases the chances that they will face criminal justice charges in coming years.  

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a social insurance program that provides payments to people with disabilities who have low incomes. Children qualify for the program based on their disability status and their parents' low income and assets. Until 1996 children automatically continued to qualify for the adult program when they reached 18 years old unless their incomes increased.

As part of changes made to US social welfare programs in 1996 the US Social Security Administration began reevaluating the eligibility of children receiving SSI when they turned 18 using different, adult, medical eligibility criteria. The Social Security Administration began removing about 40% of children receiving benefits when they turned 18. This process disproportionately removes children with mental and behavioral conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the researchers.

Using data from the Social Security Administration and the Criminal Justice Administrative Records System researchers estimated the effect of losing Supplemental Security Income benefits at age 18 on criminal justice and employment outcomes over the next two decades. By comparing records of children with an 18th birthday after the date of welfare reform enactment on August 22, 1996, and those born earlier (who were allowed onto the adult program without review) the researchers were able to estimate the effect of losing benefits on the lives of the affected youth.

They found that terminating the cash welfare benefits of these young adults increased the number of criminal charges by 20% over the next two decades. The increase was concentrated in what the authors call “income-generating crimes,” like theft, burglary, fraud/forgery, and prostitution. As a result of the increase in criminal charges, the annual likelihood of incarceration increased by 60%. The effect of this income removal on criminal justice involvement persisted more than two decades later.

The researchers found that the impact of the change was not consistent. While some people removed from the income support program at age 18 responded by working more, a much larger fraction responded by engaging in crime to replace the lost income. In response to losing benefits, youth were twice as likely to be charged with an illicit income-generating offense than they were to maintain steady employment.

While each person removed from the program in 1996 saved the government some spending on SSI and Medicaid over the next two decades, each removal also created additional police, court, and incarceration costs. Based on the authors’ calculations, the administrative costs of crime alone almost eliminated the cost savings of removing young adults from the program.

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Longley, Robert. "Top Federal Benefit and Assistance Programs." ThoughtCo, Jul. 5, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 5). Top Federal Benefit and Assistance Programs. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Top Federal Benefit and Assistance Programs." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).