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Government assistance: 18 programs for single mothers with no income

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According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, one in eight single moms is unemployed.

If you’re currently out of work and struggling, the government can provide financial assistance and essential items for you and your children. These programs are being cited as a great success in reducing child poverty by 59% over the past three decades, including helping many single moms work.

How a single mom can get government money through welfare programs

We put together a list of government help for single mothers with no income. For each of these reputable government welfare programs, we’ve broken down the qualifications to receive assistance and provided links to apply. 

What is welfare, and what kinds of welfare programs are there in the U.S.?

Welfare programs in the United States are defined as government programs paid to the poor. Recipients of these government entitlements are typically people who work, but earn below a certain amount. 

There are dozens of federal and state welfare programs, that include help with food, rent and housing, medical and health care, child care, preschool, and financing college. 

Cash assistance programs


TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is the new name for cash assistance once called ‘welfare.' Today the program requires participants to work part-time or prove that they're looking for work. There is a federal maximum of 60 months you can receive TANF benefits, though each state creates its own limits.

How TANF works

TANF payments are automatically loaded onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card which is used like a debit card to pay for limited expenses, including rent, daycare, and food.

To qualify for TANF, you must:

  • Have children 
  • Be pregnant 
  • Be under age of 18 and the head of your household
  • Have low income — as defined by your state

TANF is administered through your state’s welfare services, which may be called Department of Human Services, Department for Children and Families, Economic Services Division, Workforce Services, Department of Social Services or related names. Recognized tribes also administer their own TANF programs.

Find a welfare services office near you


Each state’s TANF qualifications, rules and payments are different, but can include:

  • Income
  • Assets 
  • Number of household members
  • Number of children under age 18 
  • How long you have already received TANF benefits. All states except for Massachusetts and New York have limits 

Here are the four purposes of TANF:

  • Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives
  • End the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage
  • Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  • Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

This pro-two-parent-family agenda is reflected in child support laws, which require that a man's child support checks go to repay TANF outlays to their families.

Who is eligible for TANF? 

TANF eligibility includes your income, assets, number of children or household members and meet work requirements. 

In all states except for Wisconsin, you must earn less than the federal poverty limit. Each state’s percentage is different. Here are the 2022 federal poverty limit guidelines: 

Persons in family/householdAnnual household income poverty guideline

For families/households with more than eight people, add $4,720.00 for each additional person.

TANF work requirements

To continue receiving TANF benefits, you must participate in work activities for an average of 30 hours per week or get a job within two years of first receiving benefits. 

Single parents must participate in a work activity for a minimum of 20 hours per week if your child is under age 6, or 30 hours if the kid is over age 6.

Work activities can include paid and unpaid work, training, vocational school, community service, or provide child care for others completing community service. 

Some states deny extra TANF funds to families with more children, the “family cap” designed to disincentivize poor women from having more children.

These states still have family caps:

  1. Arizona
  2. Arkansas
  3. Connecticut
  4. Delaware
  5. Florida
  6. Georgia
  7. Indiana
  8. Mississippi
  9. North Carolina
  10. North Dakota
  11.  South Carolina
  12. Tennessee
  13. Virginia

Most states require you not have more than $2,000 in cash assets, though Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia have done away with those limits.. 

Learn more about TANF and where to find government help for families nearby.

Guaranteed income (or universal basic income)

Universal Basic Income, or UBI, is increasingly gaining popularity as an efficient, effective way to alleviate poverty and improve society overall. 

The essence of these programs is that by giving people a guaranteed sum of cash each month — opposed to expensive, cumbersome and inefficient programs — recipients are more likely to get the services or resources they need, money flows more freely in local economies, and society overall benefits from a sense that we take care of one another, studies are finding.

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Single moms stand to benefit the most from this kind of aide. From feminist news site The 19th:

About 56 percent of the people who live in poverty in the United States are women, and most of those are women of color. Of that group, unmarried women with children, like Nichols, are the most likely to be below the federal poverty line. For her family of five, that’s $30,680.

Here is a list of pilot UBI programs:

Mayors for Guaranteed Income

A coalition of 36 mayors from places like Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Compton and Stockton, Calif., Gainesville, Fla., Wausau, Wisc., and Jackson, Miss., came together to test UBI programs in their cities. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey committed $15 million to the organization.

Magnolia Mother’s Trust

Magnolia Mother’s Trust is a pilot program founded in 2018 that provides $1,000 a month for a year to low-income Black mothers living in affordable housing in Jackson, Miss. The program started with 20 recipients and now serves 100 mothers annually, who also get $1,000 in a 529 college savings account for their children.

Los Angeles Economic Assistance Pilot

The city of Los Angeles is launching what it calls “the largest guaranteed income economic assistance pilot program in our nation's history.” The city will select 3,000 families living in poverty to receive $1,000 a month for a year, with no rules for how the money is spent. Applicants must have at least one dependent minor or be pregnant, in addition to experiencing financial or medical hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jain Family Institute

Since 2016, Jain Family Institute has built a global network of fellows, advisors, and partners that provides a unique view into the variety of ways cash transfer programs can be structured and implemented. Their whitepapers cover disbursement infrastructure, interactions with existing benefits, and optimal guaranteed income design.

Oakland Resilient Families

The Oakland, Calf., city program, which has raised $6.75 million from private donors, will give low-income families of color $500 per month.

Food assistance programs

Find a food pantry near you using Food Finder, which will connect you with free food given away through local churches, community programs, charities in all 50 states.

Find your local food bank through the Feeding America website.

USDA National Hunger Hotline: 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273). Monday through Friday, 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM Eastern.

Government food assistance programs including SNAP / food stamps / WIC are enhanced during the pandemic.

Do you qualify for food stamps? Each state has its own income limits. Check with your local agency to see if you qualify. As one example, here is the current income limit chart for Pennsylvania:

Do I qualify for food stamps?

See if your local schools offer free meals for families with children, and food programs for senior citizens.


The Women Infants and Children program for families with children aged 5 and younger offers food coupons you can use at grocery stores, markets and bodegas, for qualifying food. Learn whether you are eligible for WIC, and how to apply.


The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program loads financial credit to low-income people on a debit card, that you use at your local grocery store and market. Learn how to qualify, and apply online for SNAP.

During the pandemic, the Biden administration expanded benefits for SNAP recipients through Sept. 30, 2021. Many states have chosen to continue those benefits indefinitely into 2022:

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

School Breakfast and Lunch Programs 

The national school breakfast and lunch program helps families with food through their local schools and daycare centers by providing free breakfasts and lunches to students.

As of April, 2021, SNAP emergency funding was expanded by an additional $1 billion per month to 25 million people as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act, which includes:

  • Extending a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits— providing over $1.1 billion per month in additional benefits through September 2021;
  • Funding meals for young adults experiencing homelessness through Child and Adult Care Food Program emergency shelters;
  • Providing nearly $900 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, including a temporary increase in fruit and vegetable vouchers to $35 per month

Special Milk Program

If your school does not have a free breakfast or lunch program, they may qualify for the special milk program.

Summer Food Service Program

The federal Summer Food Service programs helps families who depend on school lunches and breakfasts to access nutritious foods during summer breaks.

For more, read our guides on free food and free formula.

Housing assistance programs

Even if you have a solid income, you may qualify for first-time homeowners programs, or rental assistance.

Read more about housing help in this post about free housing and rental assistance — plus home loans and first-time home-buyer programs.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low-income families and individuals with energy costs, energy crisis hellp, weatherization and energy-related home repairs. Find info for your state here.

Should you keep the house in divorce? How to decide …

Child care assistance programs

Public assistance day care programs

Each state's Health and Human Services can help you find grants and money for low-cost or free daycare, based on your need, income and program availability in your area. Learn about your options at the Office of Childcare Website.

Head Start daycare

Head Start and Early Head Start is an established federal program that has proven successful in providing educational readiness for low-income children under age 5 from low-income families. The program's goals are to help all children get ready for school, as well as provide affordable child care to their parents.

Find Head Start programs near you.

State child care assistance subsidies for single moms

Each state has child care assistance programs that can help you find quality day care centers, and pay for them. Find programs in your state and town with the Office of Child Care's website.

Also, read our guide on free and affordable child care asstiance programs you — as well as free preschool and free after-school.

There are many more government programs that can help with free medical care, including:

Health insurance

Free and low-cost prescriptions

Free prescription glasses

Free or cheap dental care

Affordable dentures

Free diapers

More resources for single moms:

Best jobs moms can do from home10+ charities that help single mothers
Free laptopsScholarships for single moms
Free carFree Christmas gifts
Free smartphoneFree clothes
Free wifiFree gas
Free toysFree money
Tutoring and homework helpCash for cars
Dumpster divingFree school supplies
Free gift cards

Government assistance/welfare programs helped this professional single mom get on her feet

I often struggle with this platform, where I speak primarily to women like me: Educated, professional single moms. The number of unmarried mothers is increasingly affluent and educated, as women gain power in business and earning. But the reality remains that about half of kids raised primarily by a single mom live in poverty (a figure plummets for kids raised by single dads).

I don't pretend that what I write about here speaks to every single one of the 10 million U.S. single moms, or financial challenges that I face as an educated white woman are the same as someone who grew up with the challenges of generational poverty. However, I often hear from women facing single motherhood and find themselves in financial straights — very real, scary financial straights — despite having had every perceived advantage, a fact that only adds to the shame and fear around their situation.

A couple years ago I had this Facebook instant message conversation with Jennifer L.W. Fink, a single mom to four boys in Wisconsin. She separated five years ago and has been divorced for two. When she separated, Fink worked part-time as a freelance writer and homeschooled her children. She turned to public assistance.

Today Fink makes a living as a full-time freelance writer. She blogs at Building Boys

EJ:  In launching this blog I started researching the economics of single moms, and it actually depressed me for a few days. I don't need to tell you that the numbers are dire. When I realized I would become a single mom, I just kind of put my blinders on to the roadblocks in my way and plunged ahead. So far so good. That is what I aim to preach on Wealthy Single Mommy.

But I also try to appreciate that I am a white, educated middle-class woman who had a career before I had kids and got divorced. No ignoring that.

JLWF:  That's a big point. I'm white and educated and relatively middle class. But I married at 20 and didn't exactly have a career before that. But I still have a leg up that a lot of other single moms don't have in that I have a college degree and had some professional experience.

But here's the thing: raising kids takes at least as much time as it takes money. I don't think we, as parents, do ourselves any favors by glossing over that fact. Ideally, you have two parents working toward that goal.

How to pay off debt (even on a low income)

EJ: I agree 100 percent. But that isn't our story now. So what do you suggest?

JLWF: I definitely suggest applying for and accepting as much help as you need. There is nothing wrong or shameful about that.

EJ: We're talking public assistance?

JLWF: Yes. Most of the time, single motherhood is sudden. Even in families with two, educated, professional spouses, one spouse (often the woman) is working less outside the home to facilitate family life. And while many moms— most moms—can and will ramp up their income and earning potential, they can’t always pull that off right away. I would definitely urge these women to look into what's available in terms of health benefits, food stamps or other benefits. You have nothing to lose.

EJ: Did you accept public aid?

JLWF: Yes, I did, and I’m OK talking about it.

I have a nursing degree, but I transitioned into a writing career while I was having and homeschooling my kids. By the time of my divorce, I hadn't actively practiced nursing in 6 years. I made something like $21,000 writing the year before I divorced — not bad for a part-time job, but it's not nearly enough to support a family of five.

When I separated I ramped up my writing work, but to fill in that gap I applied for every kind of assistance I could get. Health insurance was a particular worry since my ex had carried me on his policy. I qualified for food assistance for six months, health benefits for a year, and help with heating costs that first winter.

EJ: How did you feel about applying for aid? What went through your mind?

JLWF: I'm from a middle class home. I'm not supposed to be one of “those moms.” I felt angry at a world and a system and circumstances that put my children and me in such a position that makes it easy for one spouse to walk away, while another struggles to figure out how to feed and clothe her kids. But at that time, it truly was survival for me. It was the only way to make the numbers work.

EJ: What would you family's life have looked like had you not gotten that assistance?

JLWF: I'm lucky and blessed to have good friends and family. No one would have let us starve, or land on the streets, but none of my family or friends could have afforded to subsidize us for long. We would definitely considered selling the house. But it would have been tough to find something more reasonable, and apartment living isn't exactly a great option for four active boys.

EJ: Not at all! Do you worry that professional women — or at least middle-class women — struggle unduly because they’re too embarrassed to apply for public benefits?

JLWF: Yes. It’s very hard to whip out your state assistance food card at the grocery store when you’re used to using a credit or debit card.

EJ: You said you were angry. Are you still angry, and if so, what do you do with that energy – and how does that affect your financial life?

JLWF: I am angry, but I try to channel that anger into writing and building a better life for my kids and myself. My goal is to earn enough to make it without child support, and to build a life in which my kids and I are comfortable. In many cases (my case), child support comes with strings and resentment, even though it is just supposed to be about the children.

So far, I am on my way. Each year as been better financially than the last.

EJ: That’s fantastic.

JLWF: There is also a chance that if I make too much, it will affect my child support.

EJ: Do you think that has held you back professionally and financially – that fear of losing your child support, and how unfair that might seem?

JLWF: It was a huge step for me to get over that, yes. Now my goal is to make enough so that if that were to happen, it wouldn’t eat into our comfort. I also made the conscious decision that nothing can stop me from succeeding – especially not my ex-husband.

EJ: I love that. What you are really saying is, “I will not stop myself from being successful.”

JLWF: Right. It's recognizing and overcoming my own mental hurdles.

EJ: But it is easier, I think, to build a career and wealth and success — no matter how you define success — if you do it from a place of happiness and not from being pissed off — even if we deserve to be pissed!

JLWF: I think you're right. It's just hard to get there sometimes! That’s why I think assistance works best when viewed as a temporary bridge while you work through the professional and personal challenges of divorce.

EJ: And what do you have to say to women in similar situations who refuse to apply for assistance, and instead spend their energy trying to get their ex to fork over more money?

Find even more help for single moms here >>

Check out these other helpful and free resources for low-income families and individuals: founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.

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