Government Assistance Programs


Program Eligibility
SNAP Must meet state guidelines
WIC Women: Pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum Children: Under five years old. Must meet additional WIC requirements
NSLP, SBP, and SFSP Less than 130% of poverty guidelines = free meals 130% to 185% of poverty guidelines = reduced-price meals
Seniors 60 or older and must meet state guidelines

Source: USA.gov.

COVID-19 Food Program Waivers

The USDA has granted states flexibility with the administration of several food programs during the coronavirus emergency. This flexibility includes:

  • Allowing parents or guardians to pick up and deliver meals to their children (as opposed to the child needing to be present to receive the meal)
  • Letting states waive meal pattern requirements for seniors and individuals with disabilities (so operators can create meals with available foods)
  • Permitting schools closed due to the coronavirus to delay certain administrative deadlines
  • Waiving meal times requirements to make pickup easier
  • Waiving the requirement that meals be served in group settings
  • Waiving the requirement that after-school meals and snacks are accompanied by educational activities

Additional coronavirus-related steps taken by the USDA include:

  • Launching a new coronavirus webpage to inform the public about USDA’s efforts 
  • Investing in a public-private partnership to feed rural children 
  • Allowing states to issue Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) for families of school-age children
  • Providing administrative flexibilities in SNAP and WIC programs to allow for social distancing 
  • Allowing states to issue emergency supplemental SNAP benefits  

Health Care

Six major government health care programs provide medical coverage for low-income and older Americans, children, veterans, and those who have recently lost their jobs.

Medicare

Medicare is the main health insurance plan for those 65 and older. If you are still working and covered by employer health insurance when you are three months away from your 65th birthday, discuss your Medicare options and requirements with your human resources office. You can also consult “How To Apply Online For Just Medicare” on the Social Security website.

Medicare Part A, which pays for inpatient hospital stays and nursing care, has an annual deductible of $1,484 for 2021 and $1,556 for 2022. Most people usually don’t pay a monthly premium for Part A, and there are no coinsurance costs for hospital stays of 60 days or less.

Medicare Part B covers doctor’s visits, tests, flu shots, physical therapy, and chemotherapy. The monthly premium for many Part B participants is $148.50 for 2021 and $170.10 for 2022. The Part B deductible is $203 for 2021 and $233 for 2022.

Medicare Part D is Medicare’s prescription drug benefit program, which is an optional benefit administered by private insurance companies. The average monthly premium for Medicare for Part D coverage will be $31.47 in 2021 and $33 in 2022.

ACA Health Insurance Marketplace

Healthcare.gov is home to the Health Insurance Marketplace, created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), an Obama administration program designed to provide affordable health insurance to uninsured Americans. Anyone who doesn’t have health insurance can obtain coverage through the Marketplace. Those who fall below certain income limits can receive subsidies that lower the cost of coverage.

The Marketplace normally has an annual enrollment period to obtain or change coverage. However, as part of President Biden’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, there was a special enrollment period from Feb. 15, 2021, to May 15, 2021, during which any individual could obtain coverage through the Marketplace. Furthermore, they may be able to receive a special tax credit, which would lower the plan’s premium.

Medicaid and CHIP

Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are related but have slightly different requirements. Medicaid is for low-income families and individuals. CHIP is for dependents under age 19 whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to pay for private health insurance coverage.

Both programs are federally funded in part and run at the state level. Each state has its own rules but must follow federal guidelines. You can apply for Medicaid and CHIP through the ACA Health Insurance Marketplace or your state Medicaid agency.

Veterans Administration Health Care

The primary criteria to receive VA health care benefits require that you be a military veteran or former member of the National Guard or Reserve who served on active duty and was not dishonorably discharged. Specific eligibility depends on when you served and for how long. The rules are complicated but well explained on the VA’s eligibility webpage.

COBRA

Coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) is mandated by federal law for employees (and their dependents) when they lose their job or experience a reduction in work hours. One huge downside to COBRA coverage is the cost. When you lose your job, whatever your employer paid for your health insurance goes away, and you have to pay the entire amount.

However, thanks to the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, if you lost your coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, you can qualify for up to six months of free COBRA coverage. After Sept. 30, 2021, however, you need to pay the full premium to keep the COBRA plan.

Pros of Government Health Care Programs

  • Improve public health
  • Stop medical bankruptcies for vulnerable populations
  • Boost the economy due to savings
  • Human rights issue

Cons of Government Health Care Programs

  • Increases government debt
  • Potential for abuse
  • Reduces competition
  • Long wait times for service

State Health Department Programs

State health departments offer programs in addition to those available at the federal level. Use the USA.gov state health departments link to find out what is offered in your state, information about eligibility requirements, and how to apply.

Retirement

The primary government retirement programs are Social Security for most citizens 65 and over who qualify through their work history and the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) for certain government employees who are not covered by Social Security.

Social Security

Most people are familiar with Social Security and the fact that you apply for benefits at a certain age depending on when you were born and whether you want to receive partial or full benefits. You can apply for benefits for yourself or as a spouse if you meet the following four requirements:

  • You are at least 61 years and 9 months old.
  • You are not currently receiving Social Security on your work record.
  • You have not already applied for benefits.
  • You want benefits to start no more than four months in the future.

You can also apply for Medicare when you apply for Social Security if you are within three months of age 65.

Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS)

FERS, which replaced the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) in 1987, provides benefits to civilian government workers through three programs: a Basic Benefit Plan, Social Security, and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

Eligibility for FERS benefits is determined by your age and number of years of service. The CSRS and FERS planning and applying websites provide complete information depending on how close you are to retirement.

Taxes

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sponsors several tax-assistance programs to make federal and—in some cases—state tax filing easier and free.

Free File

If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $66,000 or below, you can file federal, and in many cases, state returns, online at no cost. The process and what you need to have to file are all explained in this Free File infographic. Get help choosing a product using the Free File Online Lookup Tool.

With income above $66,000, you can still use the Free File Fillable Forms tool to prepare your taxes as long as you are comfortable doing your taxes and don’t require assistance. The fillable forms tool lets you file electronically but does not include state forms.

VITA and TCE Tax Filing Assistance Programs

The IRS has two in-person tax assistance programs: the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE). Both offer free tax-preparation assistance to qualified individuals. VITA generally applies to you if your income is $57,000 or less, you are disabled, or you have limited English-speaking skills. TCE is for citizens aged 60 or older.

You can find VITA and TCE program sites using either the IRS TCE/VITA locator tool or the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide site locator tool.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all TCE sites and many VITA sites are closed until further notice. Use the VITA locator tool to find out if a site near you is open.

Financial Assistance for Small Business

Small businesses are the beneficiaries of several long-standing government assistance loan programs, most of them originating from the Small Business Administration (SBA). In addition to the historical help these programs have provided, many also now offer special coronavirus-related assistance.

Small Business Administration (SBA)

Many owners of SMBs know about the main SBA loan programs, especially considering all the publicity the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programs have received.

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

The SBA, in consultation with the U.S. Treasury Department, announced on Jan. 11, 2021, that it reopened the PPP. The PPP was created to provide funds to companies with the financial hardship that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. Typically, the loans must be paid back within two to five years. PPP loans can be forgiven if employee retention criteria have been met.  

President Biden injected an additional $7.25 billion into the PPP with his signature on the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. PPP loans will be entirely forgiven as long as 60% of the loan is used to support payroll expenses and the remainder goes to mortgage interest, rent, utilities, personal protective equipment, or certain other business expenses.

The deadline to apply for a PPP loan was extended to May 31, 2021, and financial institutions had an additional month, until June 30, 2021, to finish processing, with the passage and signing of the PPP Extension Act on March 30, 2021, extending the covered period for PPP loans until June 30, 2021.

Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL)

The deadline to apply for the EIDL program as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been extended to Dec. 31, 2021. EIDL loans are designed to meet the financial obligations and operating expenses of small businesses with a payment schedule that can last as long as 30 years. Unlike PPP loans, the EIDL funds must be paid back and are not forgiven.

The program’s ability to offer loans is also subject to the availability of funds. In other words, when the money that was allocated to the program runs out, there will be no more loans.

Some of the program’s benefits include: 

  • Affordable terms: a 3.75% interest rate for small businesses and a 2.75% interest rate for nonprofit organizations
  • A loan maturity of 30 years 
  • An automatic deferment of 18 months before monthly payments begin

However, the SBA has much more to offer than coronavirus relief. Other SBA loan programs include the SBA Express Bridge Loan, SBA Debt Relief, and more, including access to funding to launch, manage, and grow your business. Full details, including eligibility, can be found on the SBA website.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA offers several programs aimed at all sectors of the agricultural community. Programs include farm loans, housing assistance, loans and grants for rural economic development, loans for beginning farmers and ranchers, livestock insurance, and more. Detailed information on all USDA programs, including how to apply, can be found on the USDA Grants and Loans program webpage.

Small Business Lending Fund

The Small Business Lending Fund (SMLF), created as part of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, is a dedicated fund that provides capital to community banks and community development loan funds (CDLFs) to encourage those organizations to lend to small businesses. Information about this fund, including the location of lending institutions near you, can be found on the U.S. Treasury Small Business Lending Fund website.

Pros of Government Business Programs

  • Lower interest rates
  • Favorable repayment terms
  • Less collateral needed
  • Low or no down payments

Cons of Government Business Programs

  • The loan amount may be small
  • Long approval process
  • Personal guarantees are often required

Watch Out for Scams

People looking for government assistance sometimes come across ads for free government grants. However, the government does not award grants to individuals, only to states, universities, and other organizations. Anyone who suggests otherwise is probably running a scam. If you receive such an offer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests the following dos and don’ts:

  • Write down the phone number.
  • Register at the National Do Not Call Registry.
  • File a complaint with the FTC.
  • Don’t give out bank account information.
  • Don’t pay out any money.
  • Don’t believe a caller or an email just because it claims to be from the government.



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