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