The Six Biggest U.S. Welfare Programs

The United States government offers six major welfare programs to support families in need. If you’re struggling to make ends meet or facing an unexpected time of financial difficulty, one or more of the following subsidies may help you obtain the food, medical care, and income.

As welfare programs, all six of these subsidies accept or deny applicants based on family income. This is different than entitlement programs like Medicare and worker’s compensation that base eligibility upon payroll tax contributions.

TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is what most of us commonly think of as “welfare.” It provides money for a limited period of time to more than one million families, including 2.3 million children. The Federal government established TANF to serve four important goals:

  1. Provide assistance that helps needy families care for their children
  2. Promote job, work, and marriage preparation in order to end dependency on government benefits
  3. Prevent and reduce unexpected pregnancies
  4. Encourage long-lasting maintenance of two-parent families

Though the exact subsidy depends on how your family income compares to the poverty line and how many dependents live in your home, the average TANF family receives about $600 in benefits per month.

TANF eligibility requirements vary by state and evolve over time, but the general qualifications include that applicants must:

  • Be pregnant or responsible for at least one child under 19 years of age
  • Be a U.S national, citizen, legal alien, or permanent resident
  • Have very low income
  • Be under-employed, unemployed, or about to become unemployed

There are other specific limitations to TANF. For example, families who receive TANF can’t own more than $2,00 in assets or expect additional money if they have another child. They also must get a job within five years: Most TANF benefits last five years or less.


Medicaid is a government-funded health insurance program. It pays medical expenses for low-income families, seniors, single adults, pregnant women, and children. In 2019 alone, nearly 30 million children received health insurance through Medicaid and 40% of all U.S births were covered by Medicaid.

Like other family benefits, Medicaid is a joint federal and state program. Many states have expanded their Medicaid programs in recent years to accept families who earn more than the federal poverty level. If you and your children are accepted into the Medicaid program, you’ll receive low-cost or free comprehensive medical coverage.

Child’s Health Insurance Program

The Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is similar to Medicaid. It provides low-cost health coverage to families who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but still need access to more affordable coverage options.

You can apply for CHIP (or Medicaid!) any time of the year, which is an important difference from the public health insurance marketplace. CHIP coverage benefits vary by state but generally include routine check-ups, immunizations, doctor visits, prescriptions, dental and vision care, impatient and outpatient hospital care, lab services, and emergency services.

Food Stamps

Food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), covers the cost of groceries for needy families. Nearly 40 million people received SNAP benefits in 2018. Unlike the cash benefits received through TANF, SNAP benefits can only be spent on food. Recipients receive a debit card that is automatically filled every month with the approved allowance of grocery funds.

Pregnant women and mothers of infants and young children may also qualify for WIC, a special program that provides food and education.

Supplemental Security Income

The standard Social Security program gives retirement benefits to workers who paid taxes into the system through the duration of their careers. Supplemental Security Income is different because it provides cash benefits to the disabled, blind, and elderly. This money provides food, shelter, and clothing to people who could not otherwise afford these things. More than eight million Americans receive SSI, nearly all of whom are blind or disabled.

Earned Income Tax Credit

The earned income tax credit offers benefits in a different way than the other programs on this list. It provides a tax credit for families with at least one child. A married couple filing jointly must make less than $51,492 to qualify, though that amount changes slightly each year.

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