When you apply for U.S. citizenship (naturalization), you must show that you meet the basic requirements set forth in federal immigration law. These include, for example:
For a complete description of these eligibility requirements, see Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship.
Applicants often worry that the fact that they have received public benefits (financial or other assistance from a government agency) will hurt their application for naturalization. In particular, they worry that needing government aid or support will cast doubt on their showing of good moral character.
The short answer is that, as long as you received the public benefits lawfully (without using fraud, for example), it will not hurt or affect your eligibility for naturalization in any way. The main reason is that you do not have to show that you are legally "admissible" to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
As you might remember from the green card process, any past, present, or likely future receipt of certain public benefits can be a problem for would-be immigrants. The U.S. government can decide that someone is "inadmissible" (Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A.) and therefore ineligible for LPR status if the person currently is—or is likely in the future to become—a "public charge."
Being a public charge means being dependent on government assistance in order to pay for the costs of living. This is why, if you immigrated through family, you had to have a financial sponsor.
There is, however, no "public charge" bar to receiving naturalization in the United States.
Another issue to consider as an LPR in the United States is whether your use of public benefits could make you "deportable." This is a different legal concept from inadmissibility, in that it assumes you're already inside the U.S. (legally or not). An overreliance on public benefits could, in rare situations, put an LPR at risk of being declared a "public charge" by U.S. immigration authorities.
U.S. immigration law states that anyone who becomes a public charge within five years after their date of entry to the U.S., for reasons that aren't demonstrated to have arisen since that entry, are deportable. (See I.N.A. § 237(a)(5).). But this is only enforced against people who were asked to repay public benefits they received, didn't, and were ordered by a court to pay.
For more information, see Can a Green Card Holder Be Deported for Receiving Public Benefits?.
And if you have been in any such dispute with a government agency over receiving benefits, definitely see an immigration lawyer before applying to naturalize. This could not only bar you from receiving citizenship on good moral character grounds, but result in your removal from the United States.
If you have ever illegally received public benefits, or even owed but not paid back debts resulting from an overpayment of public benefits, this could cause USCIS to decide that you do not have "good moral character." And this, in turn, will result in a denial of your application for naturalization.
It is possible that you received public benefits when you should not have, but do not even realize it.
For example, many U.S. government agencies that provide public assistance require that you let them know if you are going to be outside of the country for 30 days or more at a time. Under these circumstances, they will stop paying benefits. Since some people do not know about this requirement, they often receive benefits they are ineligible to receive because they are not in the United States. One example would be food stamps.
When you fill out your N-400 naturalization application, you will have to list your work history for the past five years. You will also have to list all of your international trips since receiving LPR status. Although it does not happen at every naturalization interview, it is possible that the immigration officer will review your travel and work history closely and see that you received public benefits at or around the same time that you were outside of the U.S. for 30 days or more. Then, the officer could ask you whether you stopped your public benefit payments during your long trip.
If you have ever received public benefits in the U.S., and think you might have done so when you shouldn't have, talk to an attorney. The attorney can check your records and see whether you received the benefits legally, then analyze whether you still qualify for U.S. citizenship.
If you did not receive public benefits illegally or improperly, however, your receipt of public benefits will not affect your chances of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. Again, financial need alone does not reflect on your moral character.