The federal government and private donations fund dental care for qualifying adults and children, most often based on financial need. The National Association of Community Health Centers writes that its member clinics "serve the primary health care needs of more than 20 million patients in more than 8,000 locations across the United States" [source: Nachc.org]. In most locations, these primary health care needs include basic dental care -- for example, for cleanings, X-rays and fillings.
Note that because the best dental care is preventive, if your (low) income permits, you may be able to use the cleanings and check-ups at these sliding-scale community health centers to avoid costly repair procedures down the line (income requirements vary by clinic). Go early, go often, and your dental care can remain virtually free.
Check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services community health center locator page to find a health center near you. Private, grant- or donation-funded clinics also exist, many of which can be found with an Internet search for your state and the terms "dental foundation."
The downsides to these free clinics can include long wait times, paperwork hoops to jump through, and lack of specialized procedures. If in doubt, after using the search tool above and before scheduling an appointment, it's worth a quick call to the clinic of your choice to explore whether you're likely to qualify for the procedure you need.
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