U.S. Welfare Programs, the Myths Versus the Facts

The 6 Major Welfare Programs

Six major welfare programs: temporary assistance for those in need, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, medicaid, earned income tax credit, supplemental security income, housing assistance.

Image by Adrian Mangel © The Balance 2019

Welfare programs are government subsidies for low-income families and individuals. Recipients must prove their income falls below a target, which is some percentage of the federal poverty level. In 2019, the poverty level for a family of four was $25,750.

There are six major U.S. welfare programs. They are the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP or "food stamps"), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and housing assistance.

Key Takeaways

  • The six major welfare programs are EITC, housing assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, and TANF.
  • These welfare programs differ from entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
  • Many negative perceptions about the people receiving welfare benefits aren't rooted in fact.

Welfare Funding in the United States

The federal government provides funding for welfare programs, but the states administer the programs. Some states also expand the programs by providing additional funds.

Welfare programs are often debated in Congress. It's not unusual for Congress to consider reducing the funding for a program that already exists.

If Congress reduces funding for a program without also reducing the state's responsibilities for that program, it creates what's known as an unfunded mandate. States and local governments usually end up picking up the rest of the tab for the program, though certain kinds of unfunded mandates can also fall on the private sector. For example, the federal government pays for SNAP benefits, but states pay half of the cost of administering the program.

Welfare vs. Entitlement

Each welfare program has its own set of eligibility requirements, but they will all include a maximum income requirement. These income requirements are usually set at the state level and determined as a percentage of the federal poverty level. For example, an Illinois resident would not qualify for SNAP benefits if their household makes more than 165% of the federal poverty level.

Maximum income levels may fluctuate, depending on other circumstances in the household. To stick with the Illinois SNAP example, households that include anyone who's disabled or older than 60 have a higher maximum income level—up to 200% of the federal poverty level.

These maximum income levels are part of what makes welfare programs different from entitlement programs. While you have to prove eligibility to receive welfare program benefits, everyone is entitled to entitlement programs if they have contributed to the program (often through payroll taxes). Even the richest Americans can receive Medicare coverage, for example, once they turn 65.

The four major U.S. entitlement programs are Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and worker's compensation.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

While many programs are technically welfare programs, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is the one you may hear referred to simply as "welfare." In March 2019, TANF provided income to more than 2 million Americans. Most TANF recipients are children. The March 2019 figures include more than 422,000 adults and nearly 1.6 million children. 

While those may seem like high numbers, they actually represent just a fraction of American families living in poverty. In 2017, for instance, only 23% of the families with children living in poverty received TANF assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The national median monthly assistance for a family of three with TANF benefits in 2018 was $486 per month.

TANF's predecessor was known as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The AFDC was created in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, but it later came under scrutiny.

Public perception of welfare, then officially known as the AFDC, soured significantly in the '70s. In 1976, President Ronald Reagan's campaign highlighted a case of welfare fraud and popularized the concept of a "welfare queen." He pushed for welfare reforms and warned of how welfare created a cycle of poverty. In 1996, President Bill Clinton created TANF as a replacement for AFDC, officially ending the original welfare system.

Medicaid and the Child's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

In October 2019, Medicaid helped pay for the health care of more than 71 million low-income adults and children.

CHIP

Children have a specialized form of Medicaid called the Child's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). It covers hospital care, medical supplies, tests, and preventive care, such as eye exams, dental care, and regular check-ups.

Medicaid pays for a significant portion of U.S. births. Not every state reports this data, but among the states that do, the rate of Medicaid-funded births commonly fall between 30% and 50%. The highest figure came from New Mexico, which reported that 71% of births in 2018 were funded by Medicaid. The lowest figure came from New Hampshire—just 26%.

The Affordable Care Act increased Medicaid coverage by 26%. It raised the maximum income level and allowed single adults to qualify.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP is more commonly known as food stamps. The food voucher system helped more than 34 million people buy food in 2019 (North Carolina did not report data in time to be included in this figure). The average individual received $129.97 a month. The total federal cost for SNAP was $58.3 billion.

The average individual received $129.97 a month from SNAP in 2019. The total federal cost for the program was $58.3 billion.

In addition to SNAP, the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides food, vouchers, education, and referrals to help feed pregnant women and children up to age six. In 2018, roughly 6.87 million people received WIC benefits. Of those, more than 76% were children or infants.

Another food-based welfare program is known as the Child Nutrition Program. In 2018, this program provided free or reduced-cost lunches to 29.7 million children at a cost of $13.8 billion to the federal government.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income provides extra cash to help low-income adults and children who live with disabilities. As of November 2019, more than 8.07 million people received an average of $567.39 per month. Of those, more than 6.9 million were blind or disabled.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

The Earned Income Tax Credit is a tax credit for low-income families. For tax year 2018, a family of four (in which couples are married and filing jointly) must have earned less than $55,884 a year to qualify. More than 22 million individuals and families received EITC in 2018. The average credit for a family with children was worth $3,191. The credits lifted approximately 5.6 million people out of poverty in 2018, 3 million of whom were children.

Housing Assistance

Housing assistance often takes the form of rental assistance. It includes 1.2 million units of public housing, privately owned subsidized housing units, and a voucher program that allows low-income renters to find their own unit. The Housing Choice Voucher Program aims to ensure that low-income families spend no more than 30% of their income on rent. Local agencies administer it to 2.2 million families.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is a similar welfare program that provides energy assistance and weatherization programs. Congress allocated $3.32 billion in block grants to the states for this program to be implemented in 2020.

Myths About Welfare Programs

A 2018 Rasmussen Reports survey found that 61% of Americans believe that too many people are dependent on government financial aid. What many of these respondents may not realize is that they themselves benefit from federal aid given to their state governments.

There are many misconceptions about who exactly benefits from federal aid. In 2012, for instance, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that 47% of the population would vote Democrat no matter what. He claimed this 47% of Americans vote Democrat because they "are dependent upon government" and don't want to see a reduction in welfare programs.

However—digging into the facts on who receives federal benefits and how they vote—one can quickly dispel this myth. In an interview with Vox, political scientist Suzanne Mettler said her research shows that welfare and food stamp recipients are far less likely to vote than others. They struggle so much to make ends meet, they don't have the extra time to read up on political issues and go to the polls. Furthermore, research by the Tax Foundation and Gallup polls shows that many of the states that rely the most on federal benefits vote Republican.

Many of the voters who decry welfare programs may not be aware of how dependent they are on government programs. For example, they may not be aware that the deduction for home mortgage interest is a form of government benefit. It's easier to only consider visible federal benefits, such as welfare checks or food stamps. As a result, some voters don't think the government has done much for them personally.

Another myth accuses undocumented immigrants of coming to the U.S. to take advantage of welfare programs. However, most welfare programs only benefit legal immigrants. Even among legal immigrants, they must have a 10-year work history or be a member of the military before they are eligible to receive TANF, for instance. Other welfare programs have similar restrictions.

The only federal welfare program that benefits undocumented immigrants is Medicaid—and even then, the benefits are only allowed in cases of emergency. Kaiser Health News estimates that roughly $2 billion goes to hospitals every year to reimburse them for emergency room costs that are largely associated with undocumented immigrants.

The Bottom Line

The United States has six major welfare programs with eligibility based on income and local poverty levels. There are other eligibility requirements, as well, depending on the program in question. However, all six programs do take income levels into account.

Understanding the true scope of these programs can be difficult since most of the benefits don't come directly to recipients in the form of checks. Instead, they may be applied individually as tax credits, or they may be more broadly distributed to the public in the form of federal grants to states and local municipalities.

Regardless of where the money is going or who is benefitting, welfare programs do make up a significant portion of the U.S. federal budget. As such, Americans can expect debates over funding levels and implementation to continue for a long time.

Article Sources

  1. Department of Health and Human Services. "U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines Used to Determine Financial Eligibility for Certain Federal Programs." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  2. USDA. "Exploring the Causes of State Variation in SNAP Administrative Costs." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  3. Illinois Department of Human Services. "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  4. Medicare.gov. "What's Medicare?" Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  5. Department of Health and Human Services. "TANF: Total Number of Recipients Fiscal Year 2019." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  6. Department of Health and Human Services. "TANF: Total Number of Adult Recipients Fiscal Year 2019." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  7. Department of Health and Human Services. "TANF: Total Number of Child Recipients Fiscal Year 2019." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  8. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Chart Book: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  9. Josh Levin. "The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth.” Little Brown and Company, 2019. Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  10. The Presidency Project. "Radio Address to the Nation on National Security and Administration Goals." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  11. Congressional Research Service. “The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant: A Legislative History.” Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  12. Medicaid. "October 2019 Medicaid & CHIP Enrollment Data Highlights." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  13. The Kaiser Family Foundation. "Births Financed by Medicaid." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  14. Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission. "Medicaid Enrollment Changes Following the ACA." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  15. USDA. "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Costs." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  16. USDA. "WIC Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  17. USDA. "National School Lunch Program." Jan. 13, 2020.

  18. Social Security Administration. "Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  19. Social Security Administration. "SSI Monthly Statistics, November 2019." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  20. Social Security Administration. "Table 2. Recipients, by Eligibility Category and Age, November 2018 - November 2019." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  21. IRS. "Do I Qualify for EITC?" Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  22. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Policy Basics: The Earned Income Tax Credit." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  23. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Rental Assistance." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  24. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Public Housing." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  25. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  26. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Policy Basics: The Housing Choice Voucher Program." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  27. Department of Health and Human Services. "LIHEAP and WAP Funding." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  28. Rasmussen Reports. "Americans Say Too Many Rely on Government Aid." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  29. Mother Jones. "Mitt Romney on Obama Voters." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  30. Vox. "Why So Many People Who Need the Government Hate It." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  31. Tax Foundation. "Which States Rely the Most on Federal Aid?" Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  32. Congressional Research Service. "Noncitizen Eligibility for Federal Public Assistance: Policy Overview," Appendix A. Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  33. Kaiser Health News. "Medicaid Helps Hospitals Pay For Illegal Immigrants’ Care." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.