What Are Public Assistance Programs?

Public assistance refers to any government-run program that assists low-income people with meeting basic needs such as food and shelter. Programs can provide direct benefits or provide recipients with money to help them purchase needed items for themselves. Unlike private charities, public assistance programs must follow government regulations regarding who they may help and are paid for via taxes.

Paid With Tax Money

Public assistance programs are paid for by taxpayers. These programs are usually run by states or counties, and you must visit a government office to apply for help. Public assistance programs follow strict guidelines as to who is eligible, how much help they must receive and what they must do to continue receiving assistance. Guidelines are usually non-negotiable because they are set by state laws regarding public assistance programs.


Public assistance is designed to give temporary aid to persons or families who are experiencing financial difficulties. They are not meant to provide for all of the applicant's needs. For example, food stamps are supposed to supplement the family's normal food purchases rather than pay for all needed food items. Many public assistance programs require recipients to work or search for work to continue to be eligible so that they do not become dependent on the government to meet their needs.


There are two main types of public assistance programs: cash aid and food aid. Food aid usually refers to food stamp programs. These programs provide recipients with a debit card that may be used only to purchase certain food items. Food stamps cannot be used to purchase hot or pre-made foods, cannot be converted into cash and cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco products. Cash aid is often referred to as "welfare" and provides recipients with a certain amount of money each month.


Political conservatives often do not support public-assistance programs. Some conservatives believe it is wrong to use tax money to support these programs because citizens do not consent to having their money used to support other people. Others argue that public assistance allows people to be dependent on the government rather than trying to make a better life for themselves. Although liberals traditionally support public-assistance programs, some liberals feel that the current system is wasteful, too hard to navigate or does not help people in an efficient manner. Thus, both liberals and conservatives may support reform of the public assistance system or even its abdication.