Note: This blog post was originally published in 2017 and updated on January 21, 2020.
A block grant is a specific type of federal financial assistance for a broadly defined function. (Editor’s note: Before getting into the nuance of block grants, you may want to review the terms “federal financial assistance” and “grant.”)
Block grants are often awarded by the federal government to U.S. state or territory governments, although some block grants are awarded directly to local governments (e.g., Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Entitlement Program to cities and counties on a formula basis).
The block grant recipients then implement the programs within those broadly defined functions (i.e., the purpose & parameters defined by legislation).
“Broadly defined” is relative to other types of grants, such as a discretionary grants, which often have much more specific and focused rules for how the grant program can be implemented.
Block grants are distinct from discretionary grants because they generally allow for more autonomy and flexibility to the states to decide how to implement the program. States may use the block grant funding to establish a program or to make sub-awards to local organizations to provide the services within their region. As long as the legislatively defined purpose and parameters are met, the primary block grant recipients may elect how to utilize the funding.
Example of a Block Grant Program
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program for Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages expects to award approximately $65 million in grant funding. The program aims to support “the development of viable Indian and Alaska Native communities, including the creation of decent housing, suitable living environments, and economic opportunities primarily for persons with low and moderate incomes.”
HUD’s program page states that “eligible applicants …include any Indian tribe, band, group, or nation (including Alaska Indians, Aleut, and Eskimos) or Alaska Native village which has established a relationship to the Federal government as defined in the program regulations.”
How Do Block Grants Help Me?
An important distinction to remember with block grants is the difference between “eligibility” for grant applicants and “eligibility” for beneficiaries. On Grants.gov, the funding opportunities are primarily for organizations to use the grant funding to then implement a program or conduct research. Applicant eligibility refers to those organizations that are able to apply to the federal agency to receive the program funding.
State and Local Governments
For block grants, the applicants are primarily U.S. states, territories, and local government entities. Once they receive a block grant, they then utilize the funding to implement the program to provide benefits and services to people who are eligible to receive them. This is the beneficiary eligibility.
This means local and regional organizations, such as a nonprofit organization or a local government office, may receive pass-through funds to implement the program to its residents. So, while the federal government does not directly provide the services in this case, organizations may be eligible to receive the benefits of a block grant without knowing its initial source.
If you are searching for personal assistance or benefits that may be supported by one of the block grants described above, you should search on your state and local governments’ websites as well as nonprofit organizations operating in your area. You may also search on Benefits.gov for personal federal assistance.