by Megan Elliot
Welfare programs are controversial. Some people believe the government is responsible for providing a strong social safety to the most vulnerable. Others see welfare as a system that’s rife with abuse and which discourages people from making responsible decisions. Whatever your take on welfare, there’s no denying that these programs to help the poor cost a lot of money. A 2015 study by the University of California at Berkeleyfound that states and the federal government spent $152.8 billion a year on food stamps, health insurance, and cash assistance programs, more than half of it going to working families who were having trouble making ends meet.
The Berkeley report found that workers in many occupations were dependent on public assistance to supplement their income, including child care, home care, and fast food workers, as well as part-time college faculty.
We know that many people receiving welfare have jobs. But what other trends are there among people who get public assistance? To get a better idea of who was actually receiving public assistance in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau recently took a closer look at participation in six major welfare programs from 2009 to 2012:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps
- Housing assistance
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), or cash benefits
- General Assistance
The report doesn’t discuss other kinds of support that people might receive, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, free school lunches, the WIC program, Head Start, energy assistance programs, and Pell Grants. While it doesn’t capture the full spectrum of welfare in the U.S., the results still provide a clearer picture of who is receiving public assistance.
Much of what’s included in the report isn’t exactly surprising – while many recipients have jobs, those who are unemployed and who don’t have much education tend to be more likely to rely on benefits for a longer period of time, for example. Nonetheless, some of the data may surprise you. Here are nine facts about who receives welfare benefits in the U.S.
1. More than 20% of the U.S. population receives public assistance
In 2012, roughly one-fifth of the U.S. population, or 52.2 million people, received some kind of means-tested public assistance every month. About 15% of the population was receiving Medicaid and 13% were on food stamps. Just 1% were getting cash benefits through TANF or General Assistance.
In addition, most people probably aren’t receiving most of their income from government programs. A separate report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that in 2011, just 5.2% of the total U.S. population was receiving more than half of their total income in cash benefits, food stamps, or SSI.
2. Participation in welfare programs grew from 2009 to 2012
In 2009, 18.6% of the population was participating in at least one means-tested benefit program. That number was up to 21.3% in 2012. But the increase in welfare participation seems to be leveling off; there was no statistically significant rise in participation from 2011 to 2012.
3. The average monthly benefit was about $400
People received an average of $404 a month in food stamps, SSI benefits, TANF, or general assistance. Those who qualified for SSI (which primarily supports people who are disabled and can’t work) received the most on average — $698 per month. As of 2015, about 8.3 million Americans were receiving SSI.
4. Children benefit the most from public assistance programs
About 39% of children received welfare benefits during an average month in 2012. Roughly 17% of adults between 18 and 64 received benefits and 12.6% of people over age 65 did as well. Those under 18 also received larger average monthly benefits than adults between 18 and 64 ($447/month vs. $393/month).