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Welfare and Income Support

Rural welfare recipients and low-wage workers can benefit from a wide range of programs designed to support work and encourage self-sufficiency. Many rural welfare recipients and low-income workers have more than one job, often with no health benefits, and still live in poverty.

Rural residents' participation in the informal economy may not count toward meeting the work requirements of welfare. Moreover, many rural residents are reluctant to admit they need government assistance, even if they qualify for help, because dependency on programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), Medicaid and food stamps carries a stigma.

Job training initiatives and programs for child care and transportation must take into account the unique characteristics of rural life in order to be successful. Limited financial resources, a lack of infrastructure and lower population density impact service delivery options. Strong communities and greater coordination of services offer opportunities to better meet the needs of these workers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is welfare, and how many rural families receive welfare benefits?

Welfare is a federally-funded public assistance program, also known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF is time-limited and provides payments to poor families. TANF benefits are funded through block grants to states, and each state has some flexibility in how it implements the program. TANF recipients are required to participate in work-related activities or find work within a specific time frame. TANF was originally enacted in 1996 and reauthorized in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

According to the 2011 report TANF in Rural America: Informing Re-authorization from the Carsey Institute, in 2009, just over 11 percent of poor rural families reported receiving any income from TANF, as compared to nearly 14 percent of poor urban families.

Are there other programs that provide income support?

General Assistance programs are state-funded income support programs. Eligibility for General Assistance varies from state to state. Unemployment benefits are funded by payroll taxes and provide limited-time income support to those who have become unemployed. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal income support program designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income. It provides money to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.

Rural, low-income workers may also benefit from food assistance programs and housing support. For more information about these types of programs, please see these topic guides:

How can I find out about eligibility for support programs? provides information and links to federal and state benefit programs, including Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, state general assistance programs, Supplemental Security Income, and a variety of other programs that can help low-income families. You can browse benefit programs or fill out a questionnaire online to get a list of programs you may be eligible to receive.

Is it harder for rural welfare recipients to find a job?

There are fewer jobs available in rural communities, and those jobs tend to pay lower wages, which can make it more difficult for rural welfare recipients to transition to employment. Some work opportunities may be temporary or seasonal, which may lead workers to cycle on and off welfare. There are also fewer choices for employment in rural communities.

Lower education levels and less job experience may also make it more difficult for rural welfare recipients to find jobs. Adult education options are more limited in rural areas, and it may be difficult to attend classes due to limited transportation services. For information on rural job training options, please see the Job Training and Adult Education topic guide.

How do limited transportation options impact rural welfare recipients?

Rural areas typically have few public transportation options. When public transportation is available, it may involve an appointment-based service intended for occasional use rather than a regularly scheduled route that could be relied on for daily transportation to the workplace. Many low-income and unemployed rural people are not able to purchase or maintain a car to get to a job, job training, or other services. Programs that help welfare recipients purchase a car have been successful in some rural areas. For more information about rural transportation issues, see the Transportation topic guide.

How do child care concerns impact rural low-income workers and those leaving welfare?

Access to reliable, affordable child care services can be a challenge for those living in rural areas. Many rural communities do not have a day care center. When child care is available, it is often home-based and may not offer extended or weekend hours to address the needs of workers required to work extended shifts.

How does access to health care impact rural welfare recipients?

The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is an option for low-income families to get health insurance coverage for their children. CHIP eligibility varies from state to state. Some states use the program to provide health insurance coverage for entire families. For more information about CHIP, please see the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' Children's Health Insurance Program. The Insure Kids Now! web site provides information on free and low-cost health insurance programs for children in each state.

Dental care is important both as an aspect of general health and as an employment issue. People with poor teeth may find it more difficult to find a job, especially in the service sector where direct contact with the public is part of the job. Dental care tends to be less available in rural areas, and dentists who accept Medicaid can be even harder to find, making it difficult for rural welfare recipients to get the services they need for good oral health. For more information about rural dental issues, please see the Dental Health topic guide.

In some rural communities, it can be difficult to get mental health services or substance abuse treatment. Welfare recipients who need these services may find it difficult to transition to employment until these other needs are addressed. For more information about rural mental health services, please see the Mental Health topic guide and the Substance Abuse topic guide.

What are tax credits and how can they help low-income families?

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides support to low-income families, including those making the transition from welfare to work. Workers who qualify and file a federal tax return can receive a refundable tax credit. Many states offer a state credit that builds on the federal credit. Not everyone who qualifies for the credit is aware of its availability, and one of the challenges for rural communities is to maximize use of the program by eligible families.

What is asset development and how can it help low-income rural families?

Asset development, in the form of Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), is a method for helping low-income families develop savings. Money saved in an IDA can be used to make a downpayment on a home, start a business, or pursue educational opportunities. In rural areas, participants are often allowed to use IDA funds to purchase a car or make home repairs. IDA programs are run by nonprofit organizations that match the contributions by the saver with additional funds. In addition to limits on how the money can be spent, IDA programs require financial literacy training. Some states include IDAs in their welfare programs.

Rural IDA programs may benefit from the trust participants have for their local bank and from the willingness of local businesses to support these programs. However, lack of transportation to attend financial literacy training and limited access to funding can make it more difficult to implement IDA programs in rural communities.

What are some barriers to seeking assistance?

Many rural residents may hesitate to seek assistance because of a strong belief in the necessity of handling personal problems themselves. Local agencies and community-based organizations may find that in order to get the word out, they may have to invest time and effort on extensive outreach.

In many rural communities, residents must travel far from home to access support programs. The Workforce Investment Act requires several programs to be partners in the one-stop delivery system. One-stop centers incorporate various program offices in a single location. TANF is a suggested partner, and states can require TANF to be a partner. Many one-stop centers also accept applications for food stamps and Medicaid and provide information about programs operated by community-based organizations and other providers.

How can service providers more effectively serve the needs of rural clients?

Historically, rural residents have relied more on informal levels of service in keeping with a strong tendency toward self-reliance, something that providers might want to consider when marketing their services. Distance and financial limitations may necessitate greater efforts toward collaboration across agencies and programs.

There are a number of actions providers can take to promote service coordination within and among rural county and local programs. Providers can set similar program eligibility requirements across programs. Eligibility requirements that factor in the unique needs and characteristics of the rural workforce will help to promote program coordination. For example, easing sanction restrictions and modifying time limits in areas of high seasonal unemployment.