Who’s on Welfare? 9 Shocking Stats About Public Assistance

pile of cash

Welfare money | Thinkstock

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 Berkeley found 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:

  • Medicaid
  • 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

crowded street

Crowd of people | Thinkstock

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

handing out money

Money handout | George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

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).

5. Many people receive benefits for a year or longer

Forty-three percent of people had been receiving benefits for 37 to 48 months. Roughly 30% had been on welfare for a year or less.

Some programs had more long-term participants than others. Nearly half of people receiving housing benefits had been getting them for three years or longer. In contrast, cash assistance was a short-term form of help for most, with just 10% of people receiving benefits for three years or more.


Time spent in government programs chart

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

6. Families led by single parents were more likely to receive benefits

Source: iStock

American money | iStock.com

Fifty-eight percent of families led by an unmarried mother and 37% headed by an unmarried father received benefits for at least one month during 2012. About 20% of families headed by a married couple received benefits for at least one during the same period.

7. Single mothers tend to receive less in benefits per month

Households headed by an unmarried woman received an average of $337 in monthly benefits, compared to $447 for households headed by single men and $420 a month for married couples.

However, families led by single moms tended to receive benefits for a longer period of time. Fifty-eight percent received benefits for three years or more, compared to 35.2% of single dad households and 34.8% of married couple households.

8. People who attend college are less likely to receive benefits

college graduation

College graduate | Thinkstock

A little over 13% of people who had attended college for at least one year received welfare benefits at any point in 2012. In contrast, 45% of people who didn’t graduate from high school received benefits during the year. People who didn’t complete high school were also more likely to be long-term benefit recipients.

9. African Americans were more likely to receive public assistance than other groups

In 2012, an average of 41.6% of African Americans received means-tested benefits each month. About 18% of Asians or Pacific Islanders and 13% of whites received benefits each month. Thirty-six percent of Hispanics of any race received government assistance.

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS

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