Accessing Your Community’s Social Services

Last Updated July 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

Sometimes, life’s challenges force us to seek help. Whether it’s illness, joblessness, homelessness, or natural disasters, social service agencies can help. It’s important to seek this help because these social issues can often negatively impact your health. There are government and charitable agencies at the federal, state, and local levels designed to provide medical and financial assistance. Most government agencies have local offices. Non-governmental agencies can help, as well. These include local food pantries, churches, and other charitable organizations in your own backyard.

Path to improved well being

These common federal assistance programs can help people and families who qualify as low income. Low-income criteria changes from time to time, so don’t let that stop you from determining your eligibility:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net. It offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families.
  • Medicaid: Health insurance is costly. Access to affordable health insurance is possible when qualifying for Medicaid.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): This program links individuals and families to programs in their state or territory for assistance.
  • Head Start: Designed to promote school readiness of children under 5, Head Start assists low-income families through education, health, social and other services.
  • Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): Keeping your home utilities on is important throughout the seasons. LIHEAP can help families that qualify for assistance.
  • Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Food and Nutrition: WIC provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education. This is designed to serve low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women. It includes infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk.
  • County health clinics: Nearly every community has Community Health Centers that provide affordable, basic health care services. These centers can often provide referrals to specialized care. This includes mental health, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS, among other things.
  • Internet: Check with your local internet provider. Some will provide lower pricing to people who meet certain income and/or disability criteria.
  • Call 211: Dial 211 on your phone to learn about resources in your area that can help with paying bills, finding food, and directing you to other sources of help.

Common sources of charitable giving at the local level:

  • Good Will: This nonprofit organization provides job assistance for people in need. As part of that, Good Will operates retail stores across the country. These low-priced, recycled treasures help many families afford clothing and household items.
  • Churches: Contact churches of all faiths in your community. Many offer assistance to families in need.
  • Food pantries: search the internet for a list of food pantries in your community. These provide families in need with non-perishable (canned, boxed) food. Sometimes, families can access perishable (meat, produce) foods, as well.
  • The Salvation Army, The American Red Cross: The Salvation Army and The American Red Cross are most helpful when you or your family is affected by a natural disaster. These organizations provide food, shelter, and other assistance to those in need.
  • Safety net hospitals: These medical centers and hospitals are in various communities. They provide health care and other health-related services to patients with little or no insurance or with Medicaid.
  • Library: If you cannot afford internet service, the public library is a good source for limited use. Check your local library for details. The library often also has information about other local resources.

Things to consider

There are a number of resources to help people with health and financial assistance. There are some things to consider.

  • Be prepared to prove your income level. This includes your job history and number of family members when you apply. Also, you will have to apply to each service. There is no “one size fits all” application. Some of these agencies conduct annual reviews of your income and situation, so you will likely be required to complete review paperwork each year.
  • Wait time. Social service agencies are busy processing requests for assistance. Be sure to ask how quickly you can access services once you qualify.
  • Red tape/paperwork. Some people call it “red tape.” But it’s really just paperwork. The paperwork can be overwhelming at times. Sticking with it can provide relief.
  • Taxable benefits. Ask the staff if you will be taxed for the benefits you receive.
  • Social service agencies take this seriously. If you are lying about your circumstances, you are committing fraud. Eventually you will get caught.
  • Rules and restrictions. Every social service has rules and restrictions. For example, you may not be allowed to purchase unhealthy food items (candy) with SNAP. Not all medical care is covered by Medicaid or by community health centers. Understand what you can and can’t do with the services you are provided.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Where can I find social services to help my family?
  • What healthy foods are best for me to purchase for my family?
  • Can I get help in completely the paperwork/application?
  • Does child support count as income?

United Way: Public benefits and community resources
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Social Services Government benefits


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