In immigration terms, Public charge simply means a foreign national who has become or is likely to become “dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance, or institutionalization for long-term care at the expense of the government.”
If you become a public charge, you will be inadmissible to the US and will not be eligible to become a legal permanent resident (green card holder) in the US. If you have become a public charge within five years after your date of entry in to the US, chances of being deported are large. Your deportation will be decided by an immigration judge who will have the final word.
If you are found to be a public charge, your application to adjust to Lawful Permanent Resident status will be rejected by the USCIS. You will also be denied an immigrant visa to enter the US by the US Consulates and in certain instances, you might also face deportation. If you are receiving any publicly funded services, that will not lead to a public charge, or reflect that you are most likely to become a public charge. There are many other benefits that you can receive that will not make you a public charge. The nature of the public program will decide if you will become a public charge or not. Attending public schools, school lunch or other supplemental nutrition programs, or getting emergency medical care will not make you a public charge, though they use public funds.
Remember that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Cash assistance from the TANF program may make you a public charge. Apart from this, state or local cash assistance programs for income maintenance (General Assistance) programs and Public assistance, including Medicaid for foreign nationals who reside in an institution for long-term care, such as a nursing home or mental health institution will make you a public charge.
If you are receiving such public cash assistance, that would result in a public charge. Make note that short-term institutionalization for rehabilitation will not result in public charge. Also know that not all cash assistance is provided for purposes of income maintenance. So it is pretty clear that not all forms of cash assistance is relevant for public charge purposes. Some energy assistance programs do offer supplemental benefits through cash payments depending on the locality and the type of fuel needed. Similarly, cash payments are also offered for childcare assistance. These type of supplemental cash benefits will not result in public charge because they are not evidence of main dependence on the government for subsistence.