9 Surprising Facts About Welfare Recipients

A white woman and her daughter shopping with EBT coupons, also known as food stamps,
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Stereotypes about welfare recipients have persisted for ages:

  • They're lazy.
  • They refuse to work and have more kids just to collect more money.
  • They are most often people of color.
  • Once they're on welfare, they stay on it, because why would you choose to work when you can get free money every month?

Politicians also play up these stereotypes about welfare recipients. During the 2015–16 Republican primary, the problem of an increasingly expensive welfare state was commonly cited by the candidates. In one debate, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said,

"We are on the path to socialism right now. We’ve got record dependents, a record number of Americans on food stamps, record low participation rate in the workforce."

President Donald Trump has regularly claimed that dependence on welfare is "out of control" and even wrote about it in his 2011 book, "Time to Get Tough." In it, he stated, without evidence, that recipients of TANF, popularly known as food stamps, "have been on the dole for nearly a decade." He suggested that widespread fraud in government assistance programs was a significant problem.

Fortunately, the number of people who receive welfare and other forms of assistance is well-documented. The U.S. Census Bureau and independent research organizations collect and analyze such data, and it can be used to debunk the myths about people on welfare and how much the federal government spends on social services.

Just 10% of Federal Budget

A pie chart analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that in 2015, social safety net or welfare programs accounted for just 10 percent of federal spending.
A pie chart analysis of 2015 federal spending. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Many Republicans claim that social services expenditures are out of control and crippling the federal budget, but these programs accounted for just 10% of federal spending in 2015.

Of the $3.7 trillion the U.S. government spent that year, the largest expenditures were Social Security (24%), health care (25%), and defense and security (16%), according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (a nonpartisan research and policy institute.)

Several safety net programs account for just 10% of that spending. They include:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides cash support to the elderly and disabled poor
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), commonly known as "welfare"
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps
  • School meals for low-income children
  • Low-income housing assistance
  • Child care assistance
  • Assistance with home energy bills
  • Programs that provide help to abused and neglected children

In addition, programs that primarily help the middle class, namely the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, are included in this 10%.

Number of Welfare Recipients Down

Contrary to the belief of President Trump and many others, enrollment in welfare programs like TANF is not "out of control," but has declined significantly since welfare reform was enacted in 1996.
A graph from the CBPP's Chart Book: TANF at 20 shows that the number of needy families supported by the program has declined sharply since 1996, though the numbers in poverty and deep poverty have increased over the same period. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Contrary to President Trump's claims about welfare, far fewer families in need receive support from this program today than did when welfare reform was enacted in 1996.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported in 2016 that since welfare reform was enacted and Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was replaced by TANF, the program has served progressively fewer families. Today, the program's benefits and eligibility for them, which are determined on a state-by-state basis, leave many families in poverty and deep poverty (living on less than 50% of the federal poverty line.)

When it debuted in 1996, TANF provided important and life-changing assistance for 4.4 million families. In 2016, the program served just 1.36 million, down from 1.6 million in 2014, despite the number of families in poverty increasing over that time.

Just over 5 million families were in poverty in 2000, but that number as of 2019 was close to 6 million. That means TANF does a poorer job of lifting families out of poverty than did its predecessor, AFDC, prior to welfare reform.

What's worse, reports the CBPP, the cash benefits paid to families have not kept pace with inflation and home rental prices, so the benefits received by needy families enrolled in TANF today are worth about 20% less than what they were worth in 1996.

Far from enrollment and spending on TANF being out of control, they are not even remotely sufficient.

Government Benefits Common

In 2012 more than 25 percent of all Americans participated in a major government assistance program, showing that the need for government assistance is normal in the U.S.
Figures 1 and 2 from the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report on participation in government assistance programs show average monthly participation rates and annual participation rates. U.S. Census Bureau

Though TANF serves fewer people today than it did in 1996, a look at the bigger picture of welfare and government assistance programs shows that many more people are receiving help than most expect.

During 2012, more than one in four Americans received some form of government welfare, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau titled "Dynamics of Economic Well-Being: Participation in Government Programs, 2009–2012: Who Gets Assistance?"

The study examined participation in the six major government assistance programs: Medicaid, SNAP, Housing Assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), TANF, and General Assistance (GA). Medicaid, which falls under health care spending, is included in this study because it serves low-income and poor families who cannot otherwise afford medical care.

The study also found that the average monthly rate of participation was just about one in five, meaning more than 52 million people received assistance during each month of 2012.

However, most benefits recipients are concentrated within Medicaid (15.3% of the population as a monthly average in 2012) and SNAP (13.4%). Just 4.2% of the population received housing assistance in a given month in 2012, just 3% received SSI, and a combined 1% received TANF or GA.

Many Short-Term Participants

A U.S. Census Bureau bar graph shows recipients of government assistance programs by duration of enrollment.
Figure 3 from the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report on recipients of government assistance shows that nearly a third of all recipients are short-term in nature. U.S. Census Bureau

While most people who received government assistance between 2009 and 2012 were long-term participants, about a third were short-term participants who received aid for a year or less, according to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report.

Those more likely to be on the long-term end are those living in households with incomes below the federal poverty line, including children, black people, female-headed households, those without a high school degree, and those not in the labor force.

Conversely, those most likely to be short-term participants are white, those who attended college for at least a year, and full-time workers.

Most Are Children

Though many think of recipients of welfare and other government benefits as lazy adults, in fact, most recipients are children.
Figures 8 and 9 from a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report on who receives government assistance show that it is children who are the primary recipients of the major programs, and that they are mostly receiving long-term assistance. U.S. Census Bureau

The vast majority of Americans receiving one of the six major forms of government assistance are children below the age of 18. Nearly half of all children in the United States—46.7%—received some form of government assistance at some point during 2012, while about two in five American children on average received assistance in a given month during the same year.

Meanwhile, fewer than 17% of adults under the age of 64 received assistance on average during a given month in 2012, as did 12.6% of adults over the age of 65.

The 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau also shows that children participate for longer durations in these programs than adults. From 2009 to 2012, more than half of all children who received government assistance did so for somewhere between 37 and 48 months. Adults, whether they are over or under 65 years of age, are split between short- and long-term participation, with their rates of long-term participation far lower than those of children.

High Juvenile Rate Because of Medicaid

Across the U.S. about 2 in 5 children are enrolled in Medicaid, with rates above 50 percent in some states.
A map created by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows how rates of enrollment in Medicaid among children differed by state in 2015. Kaiser Family Foundation

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that, in 2015, 39% of all children in America—30.4 million—received health care coverage through Medicaid. Their rate of enrollment in this program is far higher than that for adults under the age of 65, who participate at a rate of just 15%.

However, the organization's analysis of coverage by state shows that rates differ widely across the nation. In three states, more than half of all children are enrolled in Medicaid, and in another 16 states, the rate is between 40% and 49%.

The highest rates of child enrollment in Medicaid are concentrated in the South and Southwest, but rates are substantial in most states, with the lowest state rate at 21%, or one in five children.

Additionally, more than 9.4 million children were enrolled in CHIP in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a program that provides medical care to children from families earning above the Medicaid threshold but not enough to afford health care.

Many Beneficiaries Are Working

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that most recipients of Medicaid come from working households.
A map shows the percent of non-elderly Medicaid recipients who have at least one full-time worker in the household. Rates were above 50% of all enrollees in every state in 2015. Kaiser Family Foundation

Data analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that, in 2015, the vast majority of people enrolled in Medicaid—77%—were in a household where at least one adult was employed (full- or part-time.) A full 37 million enrollees, more than three in five, were members of households with at least one full-time worker.

The CBPP points out that more than half of SNAP recipients who are able-bodied working-age adults are working while receiving benefits, and more than 80% are employed in the years prior to and following participation in the program. Among households with children, the rate of employment surrounding SNAP participation is even higher.

The 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau confirms that many recipients of other government assistance programs are employed. About 1 in 10 full-time workers received government assistance in 2012, while a quarter of part-time workers did.

Of course, rates of participation in the six major government assistance programs are much higher for those who are unemployed (41.5%) and outside of the labor force (32%).

Those who are employed are more likely to be short-term rather than long-term recipients of government assistance. Nearly half of those who are recipients from homes with at least one full-time worker participate for no longer than a year.

All of this data points to the fact that these programs are serving their purpose of providing a safety net in time of need. If a member of a household suddenly loses a job or becomes disabled and unable to work, programs are in place to ensure that those affected do not lose their housing or starve. That's why participation is short-term for many; the programs allow them to stay afloat and recover.

Most Recipients Are White

Though rates of participation in government assistance programs are higher for people of color, greater numbers of whites receive benefits from the six major programs.
A table created by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that white people were the racial group with the highest number of enrollees in Medicaid in 2015. Kaiser Family Foundation

Though rates of participation are higher among people of color, white people comprise the greatest number of recipients when measured by race.

Given the population of the United States in 2012 and the annual rate of participation by race reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015, about 35 million white people participated in one of the six major government assistance programs that year. That's about 11 million more than the 24 million Hispanics and Latinos who participated and considerably more than the 20 million black people who received government aid.

In fact, most white people receiving benefits are enrolled in Medicaid. According to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 42% of non-elderly Medicaid enrollees in 2015 were white. However, U.S. Department of Agriculture data for 2013 shows that the largest racial group participating in SNAP is also white people, at more than 40%.

Great Recession Increased Participation for All

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that people of all educational levels received government assistance between 2009 and 2012, and in fact, rates of participation rose for all groups during this time.
Figures 16 and 17, from the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau Report, show that average monthly and total annual rates of participation in major government assistance programs increased for all people, regardless of education level. U.S. Census Bureau

The 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau documents rates of participation in government assistance programs from 2009 through 2012. In other words, it shows how many people received government assistance in the final year of the Great Recession and in the three years that followed it, generally known as the recovery period.

However, the findings of this report show that the period of 2010–12 was not a period of recovery for all, as overall rates of participation in government assistance programs rose each year from 2009. In fact, the rate of participation increased for all types of people, regardless of age, race, employment status, type of household or family status, and even level of education.

The average monthly participation rate for those without a high school degree rose from 33.1% in 2009 to 37.3% in 2012. It rose from 17.8% to 21.6% for those with a high school degree, and from 7.8% to 9.6% for those who attended college for one year or more.

This shows that despite how much education one attains, periods of economic crisis and job scarcity impact everyone.