Welfare Facts & Figures

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.

Over 84 million people are enrolled. 37% are children.
The federal government spends $458 billion (about 7% of the U.S. budget) on Medicaid.

Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP (Formerly known as “Food Stamps”)

Debit cards are distributed to the poor to buy food.

Over 41,000,000 Americans participate — about 12% of the total population (1 in 8 people).

Center on Budget & Policy Priorities

More than 65% of participants are in families with children & more than 36% are in families with members who are older adults or are disabled.
The federal government spends $60 billion on SNAP benefits — about 1% of the U.S. budget.

Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC)

Supports working families who pay no income tax.

31 million eligible workers and families receive $64 billion in aid (about 1% of the federal budget)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Helps disabled and blind people as well as seniors over 65 years of age.

25 million workers and families receive about $60 billion in aid (about 1% of the federal budget).

Housing Assistance

Includes rent vouchers, public housing and community development programs.

10.2 million people in 5.2 million American households use federal rental assistance to afford modest housing. 69% are seniors, children, or people with disabilities.
Housing assistance programs cost approximately $81 billion (about 1% of the federal budget)

Child Nutrition Program (CHIP)

School lunch, breakfast and after school food programs.

Over 41,000,000 children are enrolled.
The cost of the program is about $20 billion (about .3% of the federal budget)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Supports low-income families and move them from welfare to work.

Just 21% of families in poverty receive TANF benefits.
The cost of the program is $32 billion (about .5% of the federal budget)

Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

Provides high protein food for pregnant women and children up to 5 years old.

Over 6 million low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children at nutritional risk — including almost 50% of all infants born in the U.S.
The cost of the program is $5 billion (about .1% of the federal budget)

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)

Supplements the diets of low-income persons at least 60 years of age

An average of almost 676,000 Americans participate in the program each month.
The cost is $325 million (about .005% of the federal budget)

Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP)

Aids heating or cooling residential dwellings.

An estimated 4.9 million households receive assistance.
The cost of this program is $2.8 billion (about .04% of the federal budget)
Taken together, all of these programs represent about 12% of the federal budget.
About 14 million Americans that are eligible for benefits aren’t enrolled.

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

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.


Program Recipients:

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%).

U.S. Census Bureau


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

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.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

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.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, her benefits decline gradually.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

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):

A household of 3 people can receive a maximum of $740.

The average amount allotted per meal per person is $2.38.

Women Infants & Children (WIC): $43.65

Supplemental Security Income (SSI):

Beneficiaries receive a maximum monthly benefit of $914 or $1,371 for couples. The average monthly payment for people 65 and older is $554.

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

Earned Income Tax Credits

The average amount nationwide is about $2,043.


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 some 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