What are public benefits?

American families with low income can get help from the government with their expenses. This help is called welfare, or public benefits. Refugees and asylees coming to the USA also qualify for public benefits when they first arrive.

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Photo courtesy of J.Soh/VOA

Public benefits can be confusing. You must complete a lot of paperwork to get public benefits.

1. Public benefits for everyone

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

TANF helps low-income families in the USA. This program provides some cash to help families who meet the program requirements. You will need to use the money from TANF for the basic needs of your family. The program also helps to prepare people for work and family responsibilities. In some states, you are required to work as a volunteer to receive TANF. To apply for TANF, contact the TANF office in your state.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is to help disabled adults, children, and people 65 and older without disabilities who have limited income and resources. All citizens get SSI and some non-citizens are eligible too. Learn about SSI for non-citizens.

An important note about SSI: Some refugees and other non-citizens who get SSI will stop getting it after 7 years. But if you become a citizen, you can continue to receive SSI for as long as you need it.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a benefit for people who cannot work because of a disability. Non-citizens and citizens can get only SSDI if they have worked and earned enough Social Security credits. You can find Social Security information in many languages.

Medicare and Medicaid

Medicaid is a program to provide healthcare for low-income families, pregnant women, and some adults in the US. This program is for all low-income Americans. Many states also have programs to provide free or low-cost medical care for children. Learn more about Medicaid.

Medicare is a program to provide healthcare for seniors (individuals over 65-years-old). This program also provides insurance for people with disabilities. Learn more about Medicare.

Going to the doctor in the USA can cost a lot of money. This is why health insurance can help you. Even if you have insurance, you might still have to pay some money to see a doctor.

What about public charge? If I get TANF or SSI, will that stop me from getting a green card or becoming a citizen?

“Public charge” means someone who uses public benefits for a long time. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) says that someone who is likely to be a public charge cannot become a permanent resident (green card holder). USCIS says that people who receive SSI, TANF, Medicaid or cash assistance from their state may not be allowed to become permanent residents. Other benefits, such as school lunches and children’s health insurance, do not count. Please read about the new public charge rule to be informed about the risks of being considered a public charge.

You can also read more information from USCIS about the new changes.

2. Public benefits for refugees and asylees

The goal of public benefits for refugees and asylees is to provide for your basic needs until you are able to find a job. In the USA, you can only receive public benefits for a certain amount of time. This means once you start working and earning an income for your family, you will stop getting public benefits.

Learn about public benefits for refugees and asylees

Most asylees and refugees say they feel very proud once they have a good job and can take care of themselves and their families.

The information on this page comes from the US government and other trusted sources. It is intended for guidance and is updated as often as possible. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for a free or low-cost lawyer or legal help, we can help you find free and low-cost legal services.