There is no one program called “welfare.” The word refers to government assistance programs that provide help to Americans struggling with poverty in distinct ways. Some of the larger ones are:
Medicaid Grants to States
Helps with medical costs for people with limited income and resources. Also offers benefits not normally covered by Medicare, such as nursing home care and personal care services.
Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP (Formerly known as “Food Stamps”)
Debit cards are distributed to the poor to buy food.
Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC)
Supports working families who pay no income tax.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
Helps disabled and blind people as well as seniors over 65 years of age.
Includes rent vouchers, public housing and community development programs.
Child Nutrition Program (CHIP)
School lunch, breakfast and after school food programs.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
Supports low-income families and move them from welfare to work.
Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
Provides high protein food for pregnant women and children up to five years old.
Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
Supplements the diets of low-income persons at least 60 years of age
Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP)
Aids heating or cooling residential dwellings.
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.
A common element to all welfare programs is that they are means-tested. In order to qualify for benefits the individual or family must have income from jobs or self-employment at or below a defined level.
Approximately 52 million (or 21% percent) people in the U.S. participate in major means-tested government assistance programs each month. Participation rates are highest for Medicaid (15%) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program (13%).
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.
Time in Programs
- 35% of Medicaid recipients participate less than 12 months. 35% participate between 37 and 48 months.
- 38% of SNAP recipients participate between 37 and 48 months.
- 49% of people receiving housing assistance benefits participate between 37 and 48 months.
- 35% of the people enrolled in the Supplemental Security Income program participate less than 12 months. 38% participate between 37 and 48 months.
- 62% of people participating in TANF participate less than 12 months.
Most SNAP recipients who can work do so. Over 50% of individuals participating in SNAP in a typical month work in that month. Furthermore, 74% worked in the year before or after that month.
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. Another 21% are adults who live with those children. 66% of SNAP benefits go to families with children.
For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, her benefits decline gradually.
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.
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 some states have limits that are less than that.
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.