The Truth About Welfare in the United States

These last few weeks I’ve encountered quite a few opinions out there in internet land regarding public welfare. Perhaps it’s because times are tough that those receiving government assistance are on people’s minds. In any event, what I’ve seen has been troubling because many of the oldest myths about the poor are reinforced casually and without question by even intelligent people. I want to try to get at some of that today and see if I can’t make a rational argument that might go a bit of the way to convince you to re-examine some factually inaccurate beliefs.

The whole “welfare queen” myth was part of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. The myth tells the story of a woman receiving many different federal benefits, using fale identities, not working, and receiving nearly $150,000 of public funds just for doing nothing. It turns out, this was a real case, but the facts were just a teensy bit off. In 1976, Linda Taylor was arrested for welfare fraud, using multiple names to get multiple benefits, but the total amount of benefits she wrangled? $8,000. And she went to federal prison.

The fact is, study after study has shown that this myth is deeply engrained in the American psyche and we tend to be extremely confident in our mistaken beliefs.  We are sure that on the whole, the government spends a lot of money on welfare, welfare recipients don’t work, and they are by and large irresponsible young adult black women who use drugs. Stats demonstrate that welfare recipients are no more likely than the general population to use illegal drugs (source), and that the majority of welfare recipients (about 60%) are able to find work within one year before or after getting those benefits (source)

I just want to throw some more statistics at you. These stats are verified by the individual agencies claimed next to the statistic:

  • Who gets welfare or SNAP (food stamp) benefits? (Source: US Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Commerce, CATO Institute)
    • 38.8% are black
    • 39.8% are white
    • 15.7% are latino
    • 47.5% receiving SNAP benefits are children under 18 (Dept. of Agriculture)
    • 8% receiving SNAP benefits are the elderly, over 60
    • In total, 4.3 million Americans receive the cash payouts most people think of as “welfare checks”, and about 5.5 million receive unemployment benefits – in total this represents 3.1% of the U.S. population
  • How much does welfare cost?
    • A 2012 report from the non-partisan congressional budget office reports the following expenditures:
      • A total of $148 billion in “cash assistance” programs:
        • $54 billion (about 36%) is an Earned Income Tax Credit, i.e. extra money you can only get from working (not sitting around being a “welfare queen”
        • $50 billion (about 34%) is Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is only paid to the low income elderly (over 65), or low income blind or disabled people
        • $28 billion (about 19%) is a child tax credit, for children…don’t be a dick.
        • $17 billion (about 11%) are Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits, which have a maximum of 5 years of monthly benefits (though many states have made this period shorter) and requires those receiving these benefits to find work within 2 years (though many states have also made this shorter)
      • A total of $168 billion for nutrition, housing, and education:
        • $80 billion (about 48%) goes to SNAP (food stamps)
        • $18 billion (10.7%) goes to Child Nutrition programs – this is things like assisted school lunch programs and the like
        • $36 billion (21%) goes to Housing Assistance programs like section 8 vouchers, low income public housing, etc…
        • $34 billion (20%) goes to Pell Grants, which, unless you’re pretty damn wealthy, you and everyone you know probably took some of this money to go to college.

Okay, so those are numbers. Now that we have them, lets make an actual argument. In 2012, the federal government spent $3.537 trillion dollars (source).  That means that about 8.9% of the federal budget went to these social welfare programs. Not really breaking the bank. For comparison, the federal government also paid out about $70.2 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to oil companies last year (source). In fact, as we’ve been cutting SNAP and TANF benefits, there is a bill in congress right now to increase farm subsidies and farm insurance programs despite the fact that these programs are already costing $16 billion per year, guaranteeing 85% of the income of the American farmer (usually a corporate farm) and that the farm industry is currently performing very strongly anyway. Did you know that farmer has a median family income of about $85,000 per year from farming, and a total median family income of about $127,000, as compared to the U.S. median total family income, which is about $50,000/year? (source). And we’re adding to these programs.

My point is not to start a war on farmers, my point is this: we’re very quick to criticize when we find out people are say, spending welfare benefits on cable TV, or spending SNAP benefits on soda and hot meals instead of the basics and healthy foods. Yet, we spend as much money on public subsidies of industries, yet don’t seem to bat an eye as to how they spend their money? Do we evaluate and pickover the business strategies of the banks that received massive federal bailouts or the energy conglomerates that receive massive federal subsidy? No. We apparently trust them with our money, but if a poor black woman buys her son some soda with her SNAP card (again 2.2% of the total federal budget, meaning like NONE of your money) everyone loses their minds. And the true irony of it is, healthy foods would be a lot cheaper if we were more effectively subsidizing farmers and distributors that made healthy, fresh foods rather than those producing the same high fructose corn syrup in all those cheap convenience store products.

Furthermore, people tend to complain that “welfare recipients display anti-social behaviors”. I mean this in the most literal sense of anti-social; behaviors against the grain of general society. Welfare recipients are rude, they litter, they feed their kids poorly, and they don’t obey social conventions. First of all, we have no data for this. We’re operating off of stereotypes and anecdotes. Secondly, take any random foreign culture and import them to the United States. Many of their customs and behaviors will seem rude and strange to you, right? Well, when was the last time a welfare recipient attended an event you attended, went to the same restaurants and parties as you did, went to the same schools as you, or any other shared experience? My point is, we cannot sit here and pretend that the poorest Americans are simply temporarily embarassed millionaires who, if they only had the funds and the work ethic would suddenly just join polite society eating caviar in fine restaurants and drinking tea with their pinkies out – the life, upbringing, and value programing of an American who has spent his or her life in poverty and receiving welfare benefits is so qualitatively different from the middle-class upbringing of most Americans that they might as well be from a foreign culture in many respects. We’re talking growing up with contextual associations completely different from yours and mine. I was taught from a young age the polite way to sit and eat in a restaurant because that was relevant growing up in a family where I would often be expected to sit quietly at restaurants. Is that relevant to someone growing up rural or urban poor? Likely not.

My point in all of this is that we have a way of demonizing the poor, and especially the minority race poor in this country, but we disguise it with misguided “facts” we believe wholeheartedly, and we’re prone to confirmation bias if we see or hear about a few anecdotal cases that seem to prove our ideas are true, even if those few cases are not even remotely borne out by the facts. As we’ve shown in a previous blog, welfare recipients are most likely to be white, they’re most likely to be moms, they’re most likely to have a job, and many of them work 2 jobs but still can’t pay the rent because it’s too damn high. Stop being a prick about welfare. You give a lot more of your money to ExxonMobile than you give to the family down the street for SNAP benefits, so why do you feel so entitled to criticize that family for the type of food they buy or the way they act when they buy it. Get off your high horse and learn some shit.

TL:DR The myth of the welfare queen is bullshit, and you’re probably secretly expressing latent racist/classist myths



  1. Pingback: Special Weekend Bonus Blog: GREAT Documentary to Check Out | TL;DR | The 'Too Long; Didn't Read' Blog

  2. Connie

    There is TREMENDOUS WASTE of money throughout our social services and corporate greed. Two wrongs don’t make a right and we HAVE to make ALL sides accountable. Entitlement is unacceptable and continued education and enlightenment to “who is doing what” is VERY important… followed by responsible action!! With the Grace of God “May we get it right”!! Good Luck Jesse.. you have terrific a Aunt and Uncle….lucky you 🙂

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