State General Assistance Programs Very Limited in Half the States and Nonexistent in Others, Despite Need
July 2, 2020
State General Assistance (GA) programs, meant to provide a safety net of last resort for people who are very poor and do not qualify for other cash assistance, often fail to perform that basic task. There is no federally supported cash assistance program for poor adults without minor children other than those with disabilities serious enough to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI); state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs only serve families with minor children. Thus, state or local GA programs are generally the only cash assistance for which poor childless adults can qualify. Yet only half the states provide any type of general assistance, and often it is available only to a limited slice of those in need.
"Only half of states provide any type of general assistance, and often it is available only to a limited slice of those in need."
Moreover, state GA programs have weakened considerably in the last three decades. The number of states with GA programs has fallen from 38 to 25 since 1989, and benefits have shrunk in inflation-adjusted terms in nearly every state since 1998. The result is that, as our nation faces the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, general assistance for people experiencing great need is unavailable in many states and very limited in the others. Also, in a number of states individuals who cannot work and have no minor children at home may have only limited access to non-cash benefits, such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) or health coverage.
The 25 states with GA programs generally serve very poor individuals who do not have minor children, are not disabled enough to qualify for (or do not yet receive) SSI, and are not elderly. Only 11 of the 25 states provide any benefits to childless adults who do not have some disability; the others only serve childless adults the state has deemed “unemployable,” generally due to a physical or mental condition. (See Figure 1.) Some are uniform statewide programs; others have mandatory state guidelines but allow county programs to adopt varying eligibility standards. (See Appendices II and III for greater detail.)
General Assistance benefits are extremely modest. In nearly all states with programs, the maximum benefit is below half of the poverty line for an individual; in half of those states it is below one-quarter of the poverty line. In many states, benefit levels have not changed in decades and thus have shrunk significantly in inflation-adjusted terms. Some states have cut benefits further, reducing them in nominal dollars. Some other states have raised benefits at some point over the last 25 years, but generally not by enough to restore the lost purchasing power.
In each of the past three decades, some states have eliminated their General Assistance programs and others have cut funding, restricted eligibility, imposed time limits, and/or cut benefits. Between the late 1980s and late 1990s, 12 states eliminated General Assistance for people who do not have a disability, and three other states eliminated their state GA programs altogether. Between 1998 and 2010, five additional states terminated their GA programs, and at least ten other states cut their programs back. Since 2011, four more states have ended their statewide programs and several others have reduced funding or tightened eligibility.
This report describes the weakening of General Assistance programs over the years and provides an overview of program policies across the 25 states with programs in 2020. The information in this report is based on our updated national survey of General Assistance programs.
Overview of General Assistance Programs
As of April 1, 2020, 25 states had a GA program that either operated statewide or was mandated and governed by statewide guidelines. (See Figure 1.) This section reviews key eligibility provisions and related benefits for these states; see Appendices II and III for more details.
Every state General Assistance program assists individuals with disabilities. Some also assist other individuals.
Individuals with a disability. GA programs in 25 states serve needy individuals who are unable to work due to incapacity or disability but are not receiving SSI. Some of these programs assist those deemed “employable” and individuals with a disability alike, based solely on financial need. Most, however, only serve individuals who have a disability or are otherwise deemed “unemployable.”
Programs limited to individuals with a disability require some type of medical documentation of incapacity. Most states require a minimum duration of disability — that is, the disability must be expected to last for anywhere from at least 30 days to at least 48 months, depending on the state. State policies vary in the severity of the disability that qualifies an individual for General Assistance, ranging from a temporary inability to work due to incapacity to the much more severe SSI disability standard (a disability expected to last at least 12 months or to cause death). Some of the states using the SSI disability standard require GA recipients to apply for SSI, often requiring them to sign an interim assistance agreement to repay the state once they begin receiving SSI. Claims for SSI are often denied, and claimants face long delays as they pursue appeals.
- Other individuals deemed “unemployable.” In addition to individuals with a disability, seven states serve other categories of individuals who are deemed “unemployable” because they are, for example, over age 55, have a learning disability or limited literacy that prevents employment, or are needed at home to care for a young child or a family member with a disability.
- Individuals deemed “employable.” Some 11 states assist individuals whom the state considers “employable” but who are ineligible for other cash public assistance programs, though benefits are very limited. (These states also serve those deemed “unemployable,” in the same program or a separate one; some states have different eligibility criteria, benefit levels, or administrative structure for the two groups. For example, in New Jersey, maximum benefits are $185 per month for an “employable” recipient and $277 for an “unemployable” recipient.)
|Overview of General Assistance Programs, 2020|
|Individuals With a Disability||Other Individuals Deemed “Unemployable”||Individuals Deemed “Employable”|
|California||X||X||X (for some recipients)|
|Colorado||X||X (for some recipients)|
|Delaware||X||X||X (for some recipients)|
|Iowa||X||X||Varies by county|
|Nebraska||X||X||Varies by county|
Seven of the 25 states have statewide limits on how long an individual can receive aid, ranging from one month out of a year to five years total in a lifetime. The length, nature, and application of time-limit policies vary across and within states.
- Who is subject to time limits? Maryland, Utah, and New Jersey apply time limits to all GA recipients. California, Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada apply different time limit policies based on eligibility category. For example, in California, those deemed “employable” can receive benefits for nine months out of every year, while those deemed “unemployable” have no limit.
- What is the duration of the time limits? Colorado, Delaware, and New Jersey impose cumulative time limits over an individual’s lifetime. For example, New Jersey has a lifetime limit of five years. California, Maryland, Nevada, and Utah have intermittent time limits. For example, in Maryland, individuals may receive benefits for 12 out of every 36 months.
Some states that do not have statewide time limits may have variable limits across specific categories. For example, Polk County, Iowa, has no time limit, but other Iowa counties have limits as low as one month out of a year. Similarly, Douglas County, Nebraska, has no time limit, but two other Nebraska counties have limits of 12 months in a lifetime and six months out of a 12-month period.
General Assistance benefit levels are very low. Most state or county guidelines set maximum standard benefit levels. These maximum levels are below half of the federal poverty level for an individual in all but two states and below one-quarter of the federal poverty level in half of the programs.
Some of the states with the lowest benefits only serve individuals meeting the state’s criteria for disabilities or other specified work-limiting conditions, even though such individuals are, by definition, unable to supplement their benefits with earnings. (See Figure 2.) For example, Delaware and Maryland, which serve only those deemed “unemployable,” set the maximum benefit level at $79 and $185, respectively.
Some states provide benefits to recipients either in cash or through vouchers; others make all payments directly to landlords or service providers. GA benefits are intended to help recipients meet basic needs such as shelter and utilities, though the specific needs covered vary by state.
General Assistance Has Eroded Severely
General Assistance has become a much weaker safety net over the years. Many states have eliminated their programs or scaled them back by reducing funding, imposing tighter eligibility restrictions and/or time limits, and/or reducing benefits. These cutbacks continued during and after the Great Recession, despite high unemployment and a rise in the number of jobless workers who have exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits.
"Because General Assistance benefits are funded with state or local dollars, they are particularly vulnerable during state fiscal crises."
Because General Assistance benefits are funded with state or local dollars (with no federal funding), they are particularly vulnerable during state fiscal crises. For example, states may cut these programs further in light of the current health and economic crisis, which has caused a steep drop in state and local revenues. The likelihood of such cuts depends in part on the extent to which the federal government provides ample fiscal relief to states and localities to help them cope with the current crisis.
The last three decades show a gradual crumbling of access to state General Assistance. Between 1989 and 1998, Montana, South Carolina, and Wyoming eliminated their state programs altogether and 12 other states eliminated GA for those deemed “employable,” while continuing some aid to those deemed “unemployable.” By 1998, only 13 states offered any aid to individuals deemed “employable.” (See Figure 3.) Between 1998 and 2010, another five states — Missouri, Oregon, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Idaho — eliminated their statewide programs, and Utah eliminated GA for those deemed “employable” while maintaining it for those deemed “unemployable.”
This erosion continued over the last decade. In 2011 and 2012, Illinois, Kansas, and Pennsylvania eliminated their state GA programs. Most recently, Ohio phased out its Disability Financial Assistance program at the end of 2017.
Almost all the states that did not eliminate their programs over the last two decades provide lower benefits now than in 1998, after adjusting for inflation, as Figure 4 shows. Among the 18 states for which we have comparable data, only in Maryland and the District of Columbia do benefits exceed the 1998 level, and Maryland’s benefits are extremely small: less than one-quarter of the federal poverty line.
Since 2011, eight states have raised benefits in nominal terms (Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Utah), while four states have cut them (Delaware, Michigan, South Dakota, and Washington).
Health Coverage for General Assistance Recipients
Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), states can extend Medicaid eligibility to all individuals with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. The ACA thus allows low-income childless adults, including those receiving General Assistance, to qualify for Medicaid. However, in 2012 the Supreme Court made this Medicaid expansion a state option, which 37 states and the District of Columbia have taken up as of July 1, 2020.
Nearly all of the 25 states with statewide GA programs have expanded Medicaid. GA recipients in these states generally should qualify for Medicaid, although they may have to go through a separate application process. (Eleven of the 26 states without statewide GA programs have not expanded Medicaid through the ACA, leaving adults without severe disabilities or minor children at home with no access to either cash or health coverage through Medicaid.)
South Dakota is the only state with a statewide GA program that has not yet adopted the Medicaid expansion; Nebraska voters approved expansion in 2018 but the state will not implement it until October 2020. GA recipients in these two states may be able to obtain health coverage through county or local programs. For example, Minnehana County, South Dakota covers emergency services for GA recipients, as well as non-emergency services when funds are available, and Douglas County, Nebraska enrolls all GA recipients found medically indigent in the Primary Health Care Network.
In some states, GA recipients with severe disabilities may qualify for Medicaid through a disability-related category rather than through the state’s Medicaid expansion. Some states may also provide some state-funded health coverage to a subgroup of GA recipients who may not qualify for Medicaid.
By and large, the federal government has left it up to states to provide basic assistance to childless adults who are not elderly and do not meet the severe disability standard to receive SSI. States have never provided substantial support for this group, and the safety net for these individuals has weakened significantly over the past 30 years and continues to erode.
Few states serve adults without minor children at home if they are deemed “employable,” even though many of these individuals may not have the ability or opportunity to work and may not receive unemployment insurance benefits. These individuals are vulnerable to severe hardship. Moreover, half of the states have no statewide GA program for individuals even if they are unable to earn income to meet their basic needs due to disability. When benefits are available, they are often meager and subject to tight eligibility rules. These individuals who can get only limited cash help or none at all may also have very limited access to SNAP benefits due to a three-month limit on SNAP benefits. (While that limited has been temporarily suspended, it would apply in normal economic times.)
As a result, our nation — which is now facing the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression — has no effective safety net for childless adults that is broadly available across the nation.
Appendix I: Methodology
We collected information on General Assistance current policies and proposals for 2020 by checking state and county public assistance agency websites (including manuals and rules) and, where needed, directly contacting agencies in states to seek or confirm information. We looked at policies and benefit levels as of April 2020.
Not all state programs are named “General Assistance.” We included state-funded programs available to individuals who are ineligible for other forms of cash public assistance, including programs such as Interim Assistance, State Disability Assistance, and Local Welfare (see Appendices II and III). Some state GA programs also serve families that are ineligible for other aid; we have included this information in Appendix II, but the details in this report focus on program features that apply to individuals.
For historical information, we relied on reports from the Urban Institute, which include information for 1998 and comparative information back to 1989. Urban has published several comprehensive national surveys of General Assistance programs; its most recent published data is from a 1998 survey of states and a shorter policy brief.  Because we compared 2020 program information to Urban’s 1998 and 1989 data, we generally followed Urban’s classifications for states with county variability and gathered information for the same county used for the earlier Urban reports (which was, and often still is, the county with the largest population). In some cases, we included different information or classified it differently than in the earlier Urban reports.
This report focuses on the 25 states with a statewide program or statewide mandate for county or local programs. Some counties in some other states may operate their own programs; Appendix II provides the information we collected but is not necessarily comprehensive. (We did not otherwise collect information on specific county programs.) In some cases, historical data from the Urban reports indicate that a county operated a program in the past but we were unable to determine whether it still does.
|Summary of State General Assistance Programs as of April 2020|
|State Program Name||Uniform Statewide Program||State Mandate and Guidelines: Program Varies by County||No State Program or State Mandate for County Programs|
|Alaska||General Relief Assistance||X|
|California||General Assistance or General Relief (GA/GR)||X|
|Colorado||Aid to the Needy Disabled||X|
|Connecticut||State Administered General Assistance (SAGA)||X|
|District of Columbia||Interim Disability Assistance (IDA)||X|
|Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled (AABD)||X|
|Indiana||Township Poor Relief||X|
|Maine||Municipal General Assistance||X|
|Maryland||Temporary Disability Assistance Program (TDAP)||X|
|Massachusetts||Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children (EAEDC)||X|
|Michigan||State Disability Assistance (SDA)||X|
|Minnesota||General Assistance (GA)||X|
|Montana||Indigent Assistance or General Assistance||X*|
|New Hampshire||Local Welfare||X|
|Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled||X|
|New Jersey||General Assistance (Work First NJ)||X|
|New Mexico||General Assistance||X|
|New York||Safety Net Assistance (SNA)||X|
|Rhode Island||General Public Assistance (GPA)||X|
|South Dakota||County Poor Relief||X|
|Utah||General Assistance (GA)||X|
|Vermont||General Assistance (GA)||X|
|Washington||Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD)||X|
|Housing and Essential Needs (HEN)||X|
|Details on State General Assistance Programs|
|State Program||Eligibility Criteria (in addition to financial need)||Duration of Incapacity||Benefit Levels (Max. for One Person)||Time Limits|
|Alaska||General Relief Assistance||Eligibility based solely on financial need||N/A||$120||None; eligibility redetermined each month|
|Interim Assistance||Elderly, blind, disabled, and awaiting SSI determination||Expected to last for at least 12 months or terminal||$280||None, but eligibility ends upon final SSI determination|
|General Assistance or General Relief (GA/GR)||Employable||N/A||$221||9 months in a 12-month period if employable. None for unemployable individuals|
|Temporary Unemployable: temporary physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment||less than 12 months|
|Unemployable: physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment||Expected to last for at least 12 months or terminally ill|
|Colorado||Aid to the Needy Disabled||Age 18 – 59 with a disability that precludes working||6 months or more||$189||If the diagnosis is alcoholism or drug abuse, 12 cumulative months in a lifetime|
|Connecticut||State Administered General Assistance (SAGA)||Unemployable: 1 - severe physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment, or 2 - over 65; over age 55 and no recent work history; full-time high school student; needed at home to care for child under 2 or incapacitated spouse or child; or pending receipt of a state or federal means-tested program||6 months or more||$219||None|
|Short-term Transitional: physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment||2 to 6 months (must have recent work history)||$219 if applicant has a rental obligation; $55 if living rent-free|
|Long-term Transitional: physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment||6 months or more|
|Delaware||General Assistance||1 - ill or incapacitated, preventing employment, or 2 - appealing SSI or SSA decision (not to exceed 2 months); needed at home to care for child under 6 or an ill or incapacitated household member; over age 55; or full-time high school student||None specified||$79||2 months if appealing SSI/SSA decision; 24 months for high school students. None otherwise|
|District of Columbia||Interim Disability Assistance (IDA)||Permanently and totally disabled and awaiting SSI determination||12 months or more||$414||None, but eligibility ends upon final SSI determination|
|Hawai’i||General Assistance (GA)||Physically and/or mentally disabled (including drug abuse); unable to work more than 30 hrs/week; don't meet SSI requirements||60 days or more||$348||None|
|Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled||65 or older; blind; or physically or mentally disabled and unable to work; or unable to work and have a terminal condition; or on Social Security or SSI but getting too little money; or living with and caring for an individual receiving AABD.||Expected to last for at least 12 months or terminal||$418||None|
(Center Township of Marion County)
|Township Poor Relief||Based solely on financial need. Must seek and accept employment unless individual is disabled, a minor, over 65, or caring for incapacitated spouse or child||None||No overall maximum||None (each application is for one month's assistance)|
|Iowa (Polk County)||General Assistance||Eligibility based solely on financial need||N/A||Varies widely by county. Annual maximum determined by Board of Supervisors in Polk County.||Varies by county. No time limit in Polk County; other counties have limits as low as one month out of each year.|
|Maine||Municipal General Assistance||Eligibility based solely on financial need||N/A||Varies by locality (municipal ordinance)||None, but must renew application for assistance every 30 days|
|Maryland||Temporary Disability Assistance Program (TDAP)||Physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment||3 months or more||$185||12 months out of a 36-month period unless pursuing or appealing SSI. If disabled 12 months or more, must file SSI application|
|Massachusetts||Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children (EAEDC)||1 - physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment, or 2 - over 65 years old and waiting for SSI payments; participating in a Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission program; or needed at home to care for a child not related to the individual or an incapacitated individual||60 days or more||$303.70||None|
|Michigan||State Disability Assistance (SDA)||1 - unable to work due to mental or physical disability, or 2 - receiving disability-based Medicaid or reside in a special facility (such as a licensed Adult Foster care Home)||90 days or more||$200||None|
|Minnesota||General Assistance (GA)||1 - has or takes care of someone with an illness or disability, or 2 - awaiting determination for SSI or SSDI, or 3 - in a mental, physical or drug rehabilitation facility or domestic violence shelter, or 4 – unemployable, has a drug or alcohol dependency, has a learning disability, is over 55, is a displaced homemaker who is a full-time student, a high school student over 18 for whom English is not the first language, or under 18 and not living with family||45 days or more||$203||None|
|Nebraska (Douglas County)||General Assistance||Eligibility based solely on financial need||N/A||Varies by county Douglas County (vendor payments only): Rent: $600 Non-food items: $25||None for most counties (during last review, one county had a lifetime limit of 12 months; another had a limit of 6 months in 12-month period)|
|Financial Assistance||Employable||N/A||$400||1 month in 12- month period|
|Employable with employment barrier||N/A||3 months in 12- month period|
|Unemployable: physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment; or age 62 or older||Expected to last for at least 12 months or terminal||6 months in 12- month period|
|New Hampshire (City of Manchester)||Local Welfare||Eligibility based solely on financial need||N/A||Varies by county; City of Manchester provides vendor payments only||None|
|Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled||Physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment||Expected to last for at least 48 months or terminal||$797|
|New Jersey||General Assistance (Work First NJ)||Employable: single adults and childless couples without children||None||$185||60-month lifetime limit|
|Unemployable: individual doesn't need to meet work requirement if physical and/or mental disability prevents employment||6 months or more||$277|
|New Mexico||General Assistance||1 - physical and/or mental incapacity preventing employment, or 2 - dependent children who are ineligible for TANF and in financial need||30 days or more||$245||None|
|New York||Safety Net Assistance (SNA)||Eligibility based on financial need for: single adults; childless couples; children living apart from any adult relative; families of persons abusing drugs or alcohol; persons who have exceeded the 60-month limit for TANF; immigrants who are eligible for temporary assistance but not eligible for federal reimbursement||N/A||Varies by county New York City: $398||None|
|Rhode Island||General Public Assistance (GPA-Bridge)||Age 18-64; must have an illness, injury, or medical condition that precludes any working; must be applying for / awaiting SSI (with few exceptions for recipients of set-aside “Hardship Fund”); must have already been approved for Medicaid. Cannot be pregnant or live with a child under 18.||30 days or more||$200||None, but must renew eligibility after 6 months and reapply after 12 months|
|South Dakota (Minnehaha County)||County Poor Relief||Eligibility based solely on financial need||N/A||$350 for housing||None; each request a one-time request|
|Utah||General Assistance (GA)||Single individuals and married couples who have no dependent children residing with them 50% or more of the time and have a physical or mental impairment that prevents employment||60 days or more||$287||12 months out of rolling 60-month period|
|Vermont||General Assistance (GA)||1) age 65 or older or has a dependent child under age 18, or 2) is not able bodied, or 3) is younger than 65, able-bodied, and the spouse or civil union partner of an SSI/AABD recipient or applicant who meets criterion 1 or 2 above, or 4) is younger than 65, able-bodied, but has two or more of the following employment barriers: 55 or older; illiterate or has no more than an 8th grade education; employed and/or full-time student for fewer than 6 months in the past 5 years; released from a mental health institution in the last 6 months; participating in a state or federally funded drug or alcohol treatment program||30 days or more||Permanent housing: Chittenden County: $232 Other counties: $198 Groceries and personal needs: $56 for 28 days||None; each request a one-time request|
|Washington*||Aged, Blind and Disabled (ABD)||1 - age 65 or older, or 2 - blind, or 3 - has a long-term medical condition that is likely to meet SSA disability criteria Must be at least 18 years old or, if under 18, a member of a married couple||At least 12 months or terminal||$197||None|
 Eleanor Bragg contributed to this report.
 These 25 states include the District of Columbia, which this report treats as a state. The remaining 26 states have no statewide GA program or state mandate for counties to provide such assistance, although some counties may offer a program at the county or local level. Because there is neither a statewide program nor state mandate, we consider these states as having no program in Figure 1. In four of the states labeled as “No State Program” we have identified at least one county with a GA program; those states are identified in Appendix II.
 A number of states use the term “unemployable” for the group of persons the state has chosen to serve, generally individuals who have a disability or meet other criteria such as being over age 55. Similarly, some of the 11 states that serve individuals more broadly based on financial need use the term “employable” to describe eligible individuals. (Some states have multiple programs with more limited benefits for those considered “employable.”) This report uses deemed “unemployable” and deemed “employable” to describe the coverage of these two types of programs, reflecting that these are state or county determinations and may not accurately depict a person’s ability to work. In reality, many individuals with disabilities or other health conditions or over age 55 are able to work. Similarly, being deemed “employable” only means that a person does not have an eligible work-limiting disability or other incapacity that meets state or county standards; many individuals deemed “employable” face serious barriers to employment, including homelessness, lack of in-demand job skills, prior involvement with the criminal justice system, or racial discrimination.
 This paper is an update of Liz Schott and Misha Hill, “State General Assistance Programs Are Weakening Despite Increased Need,” July 9, 2015. Appendix I sets forth the programs for which we collected data and how we collected it. It also discusses other studies on which we relied for historical information.
 The California information is based on the Los Angeles County program. Some other counties have different time limits; many have a limit of three months out of every 12.
 Idaho eliminated its Aged, Blind, and Disabled program in 2010. Although the state statute still refers to General Assistance and at least one county (Ada County) continues to offer one, aid there is provided to recipients for only one month in a year, which the Urban Institute and this report consider emergency assistance rather than General Assistance.
 Illinois initially withdrew state GA funding from all municipalities except Chicago and then withdrew funding for Chicago in 2012, ending the city’s GA program. Any remaining GA programs in Illinois are solely funded and administered at the municipal or county level.
 Pennsylvania briefly reinstated its program in 2018 pursuant to court order, but the legislature did not fund it and it was discontinued again at the end of July 2019.
 L. Jerome Gallagher et al., State General Assistance Programs 1998, Urban Institute, 1999; L. Jerome Gallagher, “A Shrinking Portion of the Safety Net: General Assistance from 1989 to 1998,” Urban Institute, 1999.
 For example, we included New Hampshire’s Aid for Permanently and Totally Disabled program in this report because we concluded that it was comparable to other state General Assistance programs, although the Urban Institute included only New Hampshire’s Local Welfare in its reports.