Welfare in America: Myths and Facts

Everything you think you know about welfare is wrong.

Too many Americans believe that “welfare” is a bottomless pit of unlimited cash, available free of any rules, to anyone who wants it, for as long as they want to take it. They “know” that all welfare recipients are lazy, illiterate, drug-addicted criminals who refuse to work and bear children simply for the “rewards” of higher welfare benefits. That is not, and has never been, true.

There are dozens of public assistance programs in the United States providing cash, food, shelter, medical, education, and other benefits to nearly every American. Yes, really. I’ll write more about those in a future article. Today, I will focus on The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. TANF is the primary cash assistance program in the United States. Congress replaced its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with TANF in 1996.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees and regulates TANF. Each state receives a block grant of funds based on its population, poverty rate, etc. to distribute to TANF recipients and must follow federal regulations. No state is required to participate in the program, but every state does. States have some flexibility to design their programs within federal guidelines to provide cash, childcare, employment, and other services to participants. Nationwide, only 7.4 percent of TANF funds are spent on systems and administration.^

TANF is available to families with children, and children without parents, who have no other means of support. Federal and state laws require able-bodied adult participants to engage in education, job preparation, or other work-related activities in order to collect benefits.

As reasonable people, we can debate whether to provide welfare benefits at all, but we must open that discussion with the truth, not with rumors or lies or distortions. Every group stereotype fits some of the people in that group, but no stereotype is true of all of the people in the group.

Myths and Facts

First, many critics believe that the “welfare rolls” are overflowing with public assistance recipients. Actually, the average monthly participation was only 4,375,022 in 2010. That’s an average of 1,393 people for each of the 3,141 counties in the United States each month. The 1,118,588 adult recipients compose less than four-tenths of one percent of the U.S. population at any given time.

Critics claim that “welfare queens” give birth to many children in order to get more money. In fact, the average family size is less than 2 ½ people.* There were 3,323,369 children in those families in the average month.

TANF rolls are very fluid. Most families collect benefits for only a few months at a time. They move in and out of poverty as their circumstances change. Nearly all adult TANF recipients have a work history. But let’s look at who gets to be poor in the United States.

People who are so physically or mentally disabled that they can’t hold a job,

People who are capable of learning, but for one reason or another are uneducated – functionally or financially illiterate,

People who are just not capable of learning how to do complicated jobs that pay well,

People who have incredibly bad luck. Yes, they do exist. I’ve known many. One thing after another keeps happening to them, interfering with their ability to get and keep a job.

People with drug, alcohol, and mental health problems.

These are the adults who receive TANF benefits.

That brings us to my favorite myth – that families collect welfare benefits for their entire lives, and for multiple generations. That is not, and has never been, true. Families headed by able-bodied adults can collect TANF benefits for only 60 months –a total of five years – in their lifetimes. Yes, really. Nationwide, only about two percent of TANF families reach that limit and lose their benefits each year.*

Are there drug addicts and criminals on welfare? Of course. You can’t show me any segment of society without them. But they are no more prevalent in our social service system than anywhere else. Just read any newspaper. I’ve worked with social service programs for nearly 30 years. Most of them are decent, hard-working people who just can’t catch a break in life. But far too many of our neighbors delight in pronouncing that anyone who needs help is morally inferior. I highly recommend they read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Contrary to what the republithugs want you to believe, illegal immigrants do not qualify for TANF. In fact, most legal immigrants can’t get it until they reside in the U.S. for at least five years. 98.6 percent of TANF recipients are American citizens.

And yes, applicants must verify every single piece of information on the TANF application. They must produce identification, Social Security cards for every household member, rent receipts, utility bills, bank records, employment records, and every other piece of information you can imagine. As a national social services leader said many years ago, it is unconscionable that our nation requires a person’s life to be in complete and utter shambles before we offer them the slightest bit of help. Then we make them jump through a thousand hoops to prove it.

Financial data, FY 2009

In federal fiscal year 2009, the states spent a total of $13,022,958,260 of federal funds on cash, childcare, and transportation assistance to TANF recipients. That’s a whopping $7,541.68 per family – for the entire year – or $628.47 per month.

Punishing the Poor

Belief in these myths leads many to propose punishments for anyone who dares to ask for help. They want to require drug tests and sterilization, forbid them from voting, and control how they spend their money. And most of them have the audacity to call themselves “christian”. Since when is it a crime to be poor? I truly hope that every person who shares that belief faces those hardships and lands on welfare someday.

You Can Get Help

Today, millions of unemployed Americans have lost their unemployment compensation benefits. Many more will join them before the current recession ends. If you need help, please don’t hesitate to ask for it. Don’t let these lies frighten you. You know who you are. You know that you have worked throughout your life and paid your taxes. This is what those tax dollars paid for. Go to the federal government website, benefits.gov. The questionnaire there will give you links to all of the programs that you might qualify for. You don’t have to give your name or identify yourself in any way unless you actually apply for benefits.

And remember.


For more information:

^An Introduction to TANF

*TANF Caseload Data

TANF Financial Data

Major Provisions of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act

Find out what government benefits you qualify for

Read the U.S. Constitution


8 thoughts on “Welfare in America: Myths and Facts

  1. I know this is anecdotal but my sister has cardiomyopathy. She has had a pacemaker since she was a teenager and now has an internal defibulator. I’ve lost track of how many times she has been sent to the ER or hospitalized. She wasn’t expected to live through her twenties. She can’t hold down a job because of her health, her Cardiologists have told her she cannot work, not ever. You’d think it would be easy for her to receive benefits but it was an incredible struggle. Despite her condition, she was still considered able bodied. It took a lot of effort from her Cardiologists to finally resolve this.

    My point is that for a healthy person to be granted the status of “disabled” and milk the system for life cannot be easy. This issue has been demagogued so badly that people have lost all perspective on it.

  2. I want to update this article to note that as of Nov. 1st, 2011 the lifetime maximum TANF benefit is now 24 months. In my state one must drive 50 miles to participate in job readiness activities, four days a week, six hours a day. Long gone are the days of HELP, the program is slave labor. I’m all for working but actually getting the assistance is ridiculous. My question is, “How are people getting the means to attend daily meetings costing $24 in fuel per day?” What about those without transportation options? The benefit is max $229.00 a month. Someone forgot the entire reason for applying for assistance is because there is no money for gas, mortgage, food, medicine, electric, and many other needs. Please do the math here: families are expected to spend $96 a week for $229 a MONTH. I cannot claim a master’s degree, but even I know families are in a worse situation by participating in the program. Not to mention one has to jump through hoops, provide entire life story, be totally humiliated, search for a job 55 hours a week, work 24 hours in the DFC office, and maintain educational activities. If you cannot attend ONE meeting all benefits are stripped immediately; you then go on a three month sanction where the household is restricted from being helped by our “handout” system. I think the office workers should hang a sign that reads: Don’t even bother. The bankers can have $700 billion, but my sister has to quit school to get a job because she couldn’t afford the “help”.

    Lastly, please don’t open your mouth about the poor. You have no idea how hard we work for a very little bit. Not everyone was given parents, a good PRIMARY education, and/or any other advantages. We were lucky if anyone provided clothing for us to attend school. We just grew older not up…as an adult you have to make up for everything the one whom spit you out lacked. I can’t say it’s a particularly easy task.

    1. If the system offers no help as your statement claims, then why participate in it to begin with? Jobs are out there, and you can surely make more than $229.00 a month from working, even if only part-time. I grew up poor. Lived in section 8 housing. I grew up in the real projects. As a white male, I can tell you it was extremely difficult. Out of 226 families, 8 of them were white. I went to prison, have an extensive criminal background. After prison I decided enough was enough, let me reiterate that, I decided. Me. I didn’t wait for someone to do it for me. I did it. Also, I did it on my own. If anyone knows the struggles of finding employment, trust me, convicted felons do. I went to college, changed the way I did things. You’re last paragraph sounds like excuses. I would urge you to put aside your past, and look to your future. Once you decide you want more, nothing can stop you from obtaining it. The hell with what other people have. What matters is what you don’t have, and if you want it, go get it. No one owes you, or me, anything in this world. Also, after extensive research for a college paper (which is what led me here) there are other programs out there that are meant to supplement TANF. TANF doesn’t cover medical or housing, but programs such as HUD and Medicaid/Medicare, Food Stamps are meant to work hand-in-hand with TANF. So you have to jump through some hoops…. You should get this stuff for free though right, you’re owed it. Really? If you don’t like the program, don’t participate in it. Find work. Work 20 hours a week, a part-time job, and you wouldn’t have to jump through half of those hoops. So really, kind of on you at this point. Or whoever you were writing on behalf of here.

      1. I did NOT say that the system offers no help at all.
        WHY are you lying?
        Since you didn’t even bother to read the article, I will offer no further comment.

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