Lia Sophia, Part 1

Today begins the start of a series of blog posts by our good friend and colleague, Lia Sophia, who has had both the experience of being a social policy researcher, and of being a new mom trying to navigate the system of public programs. We are delighted that she has offered to write some advice for others who may be struggling to get help. She tackles a number of topics, which we will post over the next two weeks. Thank you, Lia Sophia!


Public assistance programs exist as a safety net, to help those who have fallen on hard times get back on their feet. Job loss, unexpected illnesses, and other unforeseeable circumstances occur in life and while we struggle to pick up the pieces, it is useful to know that a safety net exists. Most public assistance programs are meant to be used on a temporary basis, however, given that many low-skill jobs don’t offer a living wage or health benefits, families often find themselves enrolling in public assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid for extended periods of time. While you work toward providing a better living for your family, these programs can provide a lifeline; you should apply if your family is in need.

Applying for Public Assistance—Where to fill out and application and how to locate your local office

Applying for public assistance can be complicated. I applied for Medicaid for the first time in 2006 when I needed health coverage for my son. I lived in Florida and would soon be moving to Illinois; I assumed the case would somehow be transferred to my new state of residence and that my son would not experience a gap in coverage. Surely, the eligibility requirements would be the same throughout the U.S.

I was wrong.

Although programs such as SNAP and Medicaid are federal programs, they are run at the state level. As such, you must apply for public assistance in your state of residence. This means that if you move to a new state, you need to fill out a new application. Every state has a different application process. Some states allow applicants to fill out one application to apply for various programs; others require a separate application for each program.  The application process has been somewhat eased by the availability of online applications. Most states now allow and prefer online applications. To check if an online application is available in your state, go to If you prefer to visit your local office in person, go to to find a location near you. The same office that processes SNAP applications usually also processes applications for medical assistance and other pubic assistance programs. Check your state’s Department of Health and Human Services to learn more about the programs available in your state.

*TIP: When applying for public benefits, although you are encouraged to fill out as much application as possible, you do not need to fill out the entire application for it to begin being processed (although the process will move along faster if you are able to provide complete information). At a minimum, you should include your name, contact info, and signature.  A caseworker will contact you to request more information. You may request for a caseworker to be sent to your home to assist you in filling out the application if you are unable to make it to the local DHS office. You may also request a phone interview if you are unable to attend an in-person interview. 

- Lia Sophia