Discretionary Assistance: Government Grants & Other Types of Government Benefits

The United States federal government is very active in its efforts to provide “discretionary assistance” to its at-need citizens. There are rarely fewer than 1,400 programs that offer benefits to eligible citizens. Although some call the assistance provided by these programs grants, there are more than one type of help offered. Some citizens benefit from training, loans, the use of surplus government equipment and a dozen other forms of assistance.

Discretionary programs do not distribute funds automatically like some other federal programs such as Social Security. Instead, recipients must apply, go through a consideration process and receive formal approval. The application process can sometimes be grueling. Uncle Sam doesn’t want to give away the money to just anyone.



Finding the right programs

With around 1,400 possible programs from which to choose, the application process can be intimidating for some people. How do I know what programs are offered? Which ones are suitable for me?

To assist with these concerns, all of the federal assistance programs are cataloged in one place. The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) contains all of the existing benefit programs and can be obtained by:


Public and private organizations/institutions

State and local governments

U.S. territories and possessions

Federally-recognized tribal governments

Not just money

As stated above, the federal government doesn’t only provide assistance in a single way. In fact, 15 types of assistance (both financial and non-financial) exist. Here they are:

1. Direct Payments (specified) – assistance administered in the form of funds. Specified direct payments must be used for their designated purpose and evidence of their use may sometimes be required. An example is funding specifically for food.

2. Direct Payments (unspecified) – also assistance administered in the form of funds. The difference is that the payments may be use without restriction on bills, debts, leisure or anything else. A common example is a federal government pension.

3. Formula Grants – a very broad type of assistance. Funds are allocated to states (or even smaller bodies) for ongoing purposes. They do not fund a particular project, but do follow legal formulas that guide the general way the money may be used. Typically the formulas guiding their use depend upon quantifiable data such as population or tax revenue.

4. Project Grants – a very specific type of assistance. Project grants fund clearly outlined, specific projects. Such grants may be used for research, scientific study, training, construction or any number of other projects.

5. Direct Loans – loans provided to people or organizations for a certain length of time. The loans may or may not require the borrower to make interest payments but repayment of the principal balance is expected.

6. Guaranteed Loans – loans provided to people or organizations, however the benefit is actually for the lender. The government agrees to take over the loan for the lender if the borrower defaults.

7. Provision of Services – support for state or local projects that require specialized knowledge or experience. When certain, largely beneficial, tasks are underway, federal provision of services allows the community to benefit from the expertise of the federal government.



8. Advisory Services – support for state or local projects in a “hands-off” fashion. Federal experts may advise, coach, run workshops or otherwise assist community projects by sharing their understanding of systems and processes.

9. Use of government belongings – provision of federal facilities, property or goods for use by state or local bodies. Generally, the assistance is only temporary and all access or possession must be returned to the government.

10. Training – brief period of education for a specific purpose. The federal government may offer classes, seminars or programs designed to help recipients find jobs, participate in organizations, handle money, etc.

11. Employment – certain programs assist the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in recruiting and hiring civilians for federal employment. Employment with the federal government tends to be quite secure.

12. Complaints Investigation – some federal agencies exist in order to respond to claims that an individual, business or organization is violating (or has violated) any number of federal restrictions.

13. Dissemination of Technical Information – publication/distribution of technical data or information. This type of assistance exists in addition to general public information services.

14. Sale/exchange/donation of property – some programs facilitate the sale/exchange/donation of property, land, equipment, and perishables.

15. Insurance – an increasingly popular form of federal assistance. Works like standard insurance; coverage allows for reimbursement of losses. Many types of federal insurance are available.