Welfare Facts & Figures

There are 2 broad categories of people who use public benefits: those who need help briefly because they lost a job or something temporarily went wrong, and those who have longer-term circumstances — they have a disability, or they’re elderly, or they live in an economically isolated area like a rural town where the factory shut down.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

There is no one program called “welfare.” The word refers to a number of different government assistance programs that provide help to Americans struggling with poverty in distinct ways such as:

  1. Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) – Cash assistance for impoverished individuals.
  2. Women, Infants, Children (WIC) – Electronic benefits for food and eligible non-food items for low-income parents with children. Single fathers who qualify can also receive WIC support.
  3. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – Cash assistance for elderly and disabled individuals.
  4. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – Food stamps for low-income individuals and families.
  5. Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – Subsidized health care program for children and low-income adults.

The federal government spends about $967 billion — about 25% of the $3.8 trillion US budget on these programs.

New Free Thinkers

All of these programs are “means-tested” – where the benefits are restricted to the financial circumstances of the claimant.

Program Recipients:

Medicaid: 50 million (15% of the population)

Women, Infants, Children (WIC): 8 million (3% of the population)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): 5.5 million (2% of the population)

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”): 6 million (2% of the population)

Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF): 3 million (1% of the population)


40% of recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are white, 25% are black, 10% are Hispanic, 2% are Asian and 1% are Native American.

U.S. Department of Agriculture


Many Americans are eligible for one or more of the programs at one time. The exact eligibility requirements vary with the program, and income is not always the deciding factor in determining who qualifies or how much support they get.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): Anyone who is blind, disabled, aged 65 or older, has limited income or other resources and is a United States citizen or national or certain classes of “alien” are eligible for SSI.

Women, Infants & Children (WIC): Applicants must reside in the United States, in the state where they apply. There is no minimum term of residency required. There are also income requirements and “nutrition risk” requirements. Women who are pregnant or with children up to age 5 are always eligible

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): There are limits to household income and other assets. The benefit amount varies with household size.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): Applicants must be United States citizens who reside in the state where they are applying for benefits. Certain non-citizens are also eligible for benefits. Any other eligibility requirements are set by the individual states.

Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): Requirements vary with state but there are always income limits above which a person is not eligible.

Depending on the states where the programs are administered, requirements vary. All programs require some proof of hardship.

New Free Thinkers


25% of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients work.

75% of the households that receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are legally or physically unable to work. These include children, the elderly or people with a disability.

44% of all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients are children.

The Huffington Post

Program Benefits

The size of the benefit varies greatly with the program, size of the household and state rules.

Program & Average Monthly Benefit

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP): $133.70

Women Infants & Children (WIC): $43.65

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): $733 per individual

Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF): Varies by state

Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): Varies by state

US Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Services (USDA FNS); Social Security Administration (SSA), Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) benefits for a family of 3 ranges from: $170 per month in Mississippi to $923 in Alaska. The maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit ranges from $194 (for a household of 1) to $1,169 (for a household of 8).

Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are related programs funded with federal tax dollars and administered by the states. Each state must provide certain benefits, with many other services being optional. Physician services and home health visits are mandatory. Occupational therapy, dentures and eyeglasses are optional.

Time Limits

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) imposed a 60-month time limit on federally funded assistance for most families. However 17 states have limits that are less than that.

Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC)

Of the 20% of Americans who participate in a program like Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 56% stop participating within 36 months and 43% end between 3 and 4 years. Nearly 33% quit receiving benefits within 1 year.

US Census Bureau

Nationally, about 231,000 families have reached a time limit; at least 93,000 families have had their welfare case closed due to a time limit, and another 38,000 have had their benefits reduced.

Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC)

Terms vary with the benefit, but eligibility is seldom open-ended. Even within the programs eligibility limits vary. For example, Women, Infants & Children (WIC) money depends on having a child young enough to qualify the household for that benefit. Temporary Aid for Needy Family (TANF) benefits end after 2 years.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI): There is no limit on eligibility, as long as the conditions that made the individual eligible still apply. Residence changes, income changes and a few other conditions could cause a person to lose their eligibility.

Women Infants & Children (WIC): Women can receive benefits for 6 to 12 months, and can re-apply for a benefits extension.

Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF): There is generally a 48-month limit on lifetime benefits. Some individuals may qualify for extensions.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP): Recipients are usually limited to 3 months of benefits in a 36-month period.

Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): As state-administered programs, there is some variation in how long individuals may receive these benefits. There are always income limits, and age limits with the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Loss of Benefits

Aside from reaching their lifetime benefit limit, individuals can lose their benefits for fraud or for various lifestyle changes. For income-tested programs, a rise in income will bring a loss or reduction of benefits. Women, Infants, Children (WIC) recipients have to reapply for benefits after 6 to 12 months. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients must find paid work within 2 years or risk losing their benefit.

5 Common Myths About “Welfare

Myth #1: Welfare Payments Are Too High

Government assistance programs seek to provide only the barest minimum amount of help that an individual or family needs to survive. For example, the average benefit per person is $1.50 per meal in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Myth #2: Welfare Recipients Are Lazy

Most benefit programs require recipients to work in order to collect. For example, the Take Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) requires that single parents receiving this grant must work at least 30 hours per week in order to be eligible, and two-parent families must work between 35 and 50 hours a week.

The wages paid by many large employers are so low that their full-time employees are eligible for welfare. People are working full-time to support their families, paying their fair share of taxes, but are so underpaid that they can’t get by without relying on government assistance. This is partly due to the fact that the federal minimum wage has not been increased to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Myth #3: Undocumented Immigrants Are All on Welfare

Undocumented immigrants in the US are not eligible for any benefits except emergency Medicaid (in the case that they are severely injured or sick).

According to the Social Security Administration, about half to three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay federal, state, and local taxes, including billions in Social Security taxes for benefits that they will never see.

Undocumented immigrants are actually contributing more to the American economy than they take away – and they have no access to food stamps or other welfare programs, despite being one of the lowest-paid groups in the nation.

Myth #4: People Use Welfare to Support Their Drug Habits

Federal government research shows that the population of welfare receivers on drugs is basically the same as that of the American population in general – in some cases, even lower.

Recent drug testing results from individual states also prove the evidence against this widely accepted myth. For example, in 2014, Tennessee began testing their welfare applicants, resulting in 1-in-800 people testing positive for illegal drugs. That’s less than 1%. In Florida, four months of drug testing revealed that only 2.6% of applicants tested positive (in contrast, 8% of Florida’s non-welfare receiving population regularly test positive for drugs).

Research proves time and time again that mandated drug testing costs taxpayers much more money than it saves.

Myth #5: Welfare Is Not Effective

The economic damage done by the Great Recession has been the cause of rising food stamp participants. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped lessen the burden of poverty for 4.8 million people. The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit kept 8 million families from falling under the poverty line. If Social Security didn’t exist, 27 million more people would be poor.

Everyday Feminism