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The definition of "low income" can vary by household size, where you live and even the age of family or household members. It may not always be easy to put a specific number to the definition of low income, but that shouldn't keep you from getting the financial assistance you need.
Below, you'll find a long list of assistance programs specifically for low-income households. But first, we'll explain how low income is defined.
Defining low income
A commonly used definition of low income in the U.S. is the government-established federal poverty level.
The FPL is calculated each year by the Department of Health and Human Services, and it’s used to determine eligibility for a variety of assistance programs from nonprofit organizations, private companies and organizations, and specific federal programs. Examples include:
Children's Health Insurance Program.
National School Lunch Program.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Parts of Medicaid.
A portion of prescription coverage in Medicare.
These guidelines are adjusted each year for inflation.
In 2023, the federal poverty level definition of low income for a single-person household is $14,580 annually. Each additional person in the household adds $5,140 to the total. For example, the poverty guideline is $30,000 per year for a family of four.
This standard applies in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia. There are separate guidelines for Alaska and Hawaii that reflect the higher cost of living in those states.
However, as you would expect with the myriad rules of many government policies and programs, defining “low income” can get more complicated.
The measure of low income can vary
Some federal programs will use the FPL guideline number with a multiplier, such as 125%, 150% or 185%, to set eligibility. Nonfederal programs may use an entirely different multiplier.
The threshold for low-income benefits can also depend on the federal, state or local government agency or advocacy organization.
Programs that use the federal poverty level
Here are some of the federal programs that rely on the FPL definition of low income — or percentage multiples of it — to define qualification.
Head Start: This program provides early childhood education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and their families. To find a program in your area, use the Head Start Center Locator.
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: This program helps eligible low-income households with their heating and cooling bills.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: This program assists eligible low-income individuals and families with the purchase of food.
These are just a few, but there are many more:
Department or agency
Department of Health and Human Services
Department of Agriculture
Department of Energy
Department of Labor
Department of the Treasury
Corporation for National and Community Service
Legal Services Corporation
Other low-income guidelines and programs to note
The Department of Housing and Urban Development determines the eligibility of applicants for assisted housing programs such as Section 8 by calculating a percentage of the median income for a particular area.
The tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and families, known as the Earned Income Tax Credit, does not use the FPL guidelines. Instead, the IRS has an eligibility tool for the EITC.
The Department of Education's Federal TRIO Programs — which provide services for disadvantaged and low-income students, as well as first-generation college students and individuals with disabilities — have their own definition of household income to determine eligibility.
How to find local and state low-income assistance programs
There is even more help available to low-income households through some programs that are administered on the state and local level. To find assistance near you, search for your state's department of health and human services.
Another far-reaching resource is 211.org, where a phone call or visit to the website can connect you to resources on a broad range of matters.