The blog of the Urban Institute
September 11, 2013

Ten myth-busting facts about welfare

September 11, 2013

Unlike monthly jobs numbers, poverty numbers come out only once a year—and they’ll be rolling out on Tuesday. That means this is the time to talk about the 46.2 million living in poverty. And you can’t talk about poverty without talking about welfare, officially known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

It may come as a surprise, but TANF was never intended to be a comprehensive anti-poverty program. It was designed to be a temporary leg up, but its mission varies greatly from state to state.

Here are a few other facts that may surprise you:

  1. States have no legal obligation to support poor families with cash. States have a lot more freedom to do what they want with this program than people realize. In the extreme, states could even decide to get rid of TANF altogether, as Alabama budget cuts threatened to do last year.
  2. States are able to set their own rules about who gets TANF and how much, usually reflecting the state’s culture and philosophy about government’s role in helping the poor. Some states believe the poor shouldn’t get help from the government. Whether a family receives TANF assistance and how much they receive depends largely on the state where they live. For example, in Texas, fewer than 1 in 10 poor families receive assistance, compared with almost three out of four in California.
  3. Not everyone who is poor gets welfare. The official poverty line is already so low that a family of three with any income over $1,500 a month is not officially poor. And even that is not poor enough to qualify for TANF. To qualify, you typically need to have income below half the poverty line; in some states, the income limit is much lower. Cash assistance reaches fewer than one in three poor families nationally (about 1.5 percent of the total population).
  4. Reducing poverty is not one of TANF’s purposes. The amount families receive from TANF does not come close to lifting them out of poverty. The most a family could receive in the most generous state is still less than half the federal poverty line. A family of three would receive at most about $400 a month in the average state.
  5. Even though TANF was intended to assist needy families and promote work, the program devotes relatively few resources to either purpose.
    • In 2010, only 28.8 percent of TANF funds nationally was spent on cash payments to needy families. Less than 8 percent goes to activities that help people find work (including job search, work subsidies, education and training, transportation, individual development accounts, and other work expenses, combined).
    • A whopping 63 percent is spent on other social service programs or child care, or the other two purposes of TANF: preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
  6. The amount the federal government gives states for TANF has not changed since 1997. The federal government spends a total of $16.5 billion a year on TANF. This figure does not change with inflation, so it is worth less and less over time. States are obligated to contribute their own funds as well.
  7. The program was not responsive to the recession or the recent rise in poverty. During the recession, the share of needy families receiving cash assistance fell. The number of families receiving cash assistance grew, but the number of poor families grew faster.
    • While unemployment rates doubled, the number of families receiving cash assistance grew by only 13 percent.
    • The poverty rate increased from 11 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2011.
    • Child poverty rose from 16 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2011.
  8.  Since TANF began in 1997, the share of poor families receiving assistance has fallen in all states, and the difference among states has grown. In 1998, about half (53 percent) of poor families with children nationally received TANF cash assistance, compared with 28 percent in 2010. In 1998, poor families in California were three times more likely to receive cash assistance than families in Texas; by 2010, California poor families were 10 times more like to receive cash assistance than those in Texas, where TANF cash assistance went to just 7 out of 100 poor families with children.
  9. Some TANF policies discourage states from helping participants find work, in some cases giving states an incentive to drop families from their caseloads instead.
    • States have incentives not to help hard-to-employ families find work. The definition of what counts as work is so narrow and the expected levels of participation so high that states have an incentive to avoid the expense of helping hard-to-employ families.
    • Onerous documentation requirements mean caseworkers must spend many hours getting through red tape rather than pushing people toward employment. Federal requirements provide incentives for caseworkers to steer clients into activities that help the state meet regulatory requirements but don't help people find and keep jobs.
    • Further, states can reduce their work participation rate requirement by one percentage point for each percentage point drop in the number of families receiving TANF. This creates a direct incentive for states to reduce their caseloads, regardless of whether exiting families find work.
  10. Almost half of TANF cases include only children, with no financial support for the adults. Many of these children (about 4 out of 10) are living with relatives other than their parents, and the rest live with parents who have been disqualified for a variety of reasons.

Photo by M. Spencer Green/AP


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


Great piece! One point of clarification: TANF spending is below 1997 levels because it is not adjusted for inflation AND because TANF Supplemental dollars were allowed to expire in June 2011.
so true, all the people that have come into the store where I work when they see the hourly wage laugh and say "I make much more on welfare with the benefits I don't have to pay for ie food stamps medical dental optical cash and HUD housing whereas I have to pay for all of that and theirs too OMG!!!!!! why should they work?
You have to see that under-age teen pregnancy, specifically the reaction to an "option" the State offers as an escape from school and its unpleasant rigors, is a criminal temptation to a group still under the aegis of statutory rape; that is, young female children who - by law - are determined to be under the law of consent. Who was there to protect them from the slogan, "real woman, she have a child," which allowed single parent births in the Black community into a sea-change from 90% to a 2-parent family, into 10% of black births NOT on welfare. Add to your column the mind-stagering facts that Earned Income Credit rewards these members of the "new plantation" $3,000 per child. To a 15-year old, sitting up in bed watching daytime TV while eating ice cream is a welcome alternative to an unmotivated day in school. Ahhhh, the blessings of liberal compassion when seen in the light of the stolen father, a result of making the most helpless "parent" as the financial power.
This article does not consider all the resources provided to a family on welfare. In California a family may receive cash aid, food stamps, Medi-Cal, child care, and housing assistance. The whole package is considerably more than cash aid alone.
I am a Senior on SS. Am disabled, so unable to work to even help out. I am alone and get $53 in food stamps and can go to the food pantry once a month (if I am able, I never know).Also have the lowest plan for internet. Is how I pay my bills.There are times I am unable to get out. I believe the children, disabled, and elderly that are unable to work should be helped before money is sent to foreign countries. Charity begins at home first. Though out my life I have always helped people close to me. Now I feel Thankful I have a roof over my head!! Let's help out own first.
The debate should not be centered on present abuses. . Instead, we should first establish and agree upon the goals of welfare. . I submit : . The primary purpose should be to benefit everyone -- the overall economy -- Rich and poor alike. . That way, the objections of the Arch-Conservatives would be silenced or at least muted. . Common sense tells us that we must make every effort to provide universal positive participation in the economy : That is, productive employment for all those physically and mentally capable to be employed. . This is the unevadeable responsibility of society AND of all wealth-holders : It goes with the job. . It also is an exercise in LONG-TERM self-interest. . Some say "No !" . They are simply NOT thinking or they lack any vestige of imagination. .
Blah blah blah. Here is a fact. Tax and try to kill pensions and lower pay of hard working people, rather than ending the freebies. Fact, I was in line at the grocery store, thinking about how much I was going to spend on chicken and lunch meat, while the person in front of me was buying steak and seafood with free money, and drove off in a escalade. I need to give more? I'd like to know the real percentage of kids that are starving, whose parents have flat screen tvs, cable, cell phones, and smoke drink or use drugs versus the kids that are really going without. Lets interview every single person on welfare. How bout making them come to the welfare office everyday to get their money for the day. By the way, I don't blame them. It's so easy to do. Why get a real job. Work under the table, and they do just as well as us. Here is your job. Come to the office every day, get a broom or tree trimmers, then at the end of the day, return for the money. Money for the day. Watch how many people come in to the office
This article seems to bend many facts to paint a picture that isn't accurate. Since we pay all the taxes of the federal, state, and local Govt. does it really matter which one of the three gets your hard earned dollars? Why not include all welfare spending which is hundreds of billions. I'm not against helping people who run into bad luck be it health, job loss, etc... but if the welfare dept. got a bonus for weeding out fraud it could probably save 25% of the budget. Instead the more people receiving assistance the bigger their budget. I only which the Govt. was as careful spending our money as we are. ~Cheers~
I am 55, have major health problems and just recently found part time employment after a LLLooonnnggg search. I tried to receive some assistance from Medicaid to get some of my health problems taken care of and was turned down twice. I have never committed a crime and have always paid my taxes. I raised a child without his father because he died. My husband was in national guard when he was alive. my country turned me down but gave someone I know ALL the help they have, medicaid, cash each month, ebt...this person just received assylem in the usa, has no children , no health problems, is young and strong to work and yet the tax dollars I have paid into our system goes to support him and I seem to be unimportant .......................HOW can our country do this ...I didn't want to live off my government but I did expect to get treated fairly with temporary help... I don't have a problem with us helping an immigrant but not with the tax dollars of americans who are turned down for the same help...
TANF is a government funded sceme. DO not ever sign up for this program. I literally needed it for a month to help for books for college and gas to school. i was a single mother of three and i worked two jobs, and going back to college to try to better my situation, I had two CS cases that the "state" could never collect anything on for one reason or another. less than 5 days after signing up for TANF, the state seized my ex's checking account in the amount of 900.00+. of which none was mine, due to the fine print of TANF being all monies owed to you will become state property while on the program. My point is, after 6 years of NO HELP, less than a week after TANF kicked in they were miraculously able to locate, and seize money owed to my daughter and take it in full. Like i said over 900.00, even though the TOTAL amount i received from TANF was less than 250.00. and shockingly, its been 8 years since this happened and not one other penny has been collected on behalf of my kids. Gotta love the government greed.
Welfare needs to go back to the early 80's as far as funds and food stamps. The push to get a job too. There were required seminars and resume writing classes as well as volunteering required. It worked. It worked on me. I went on to become a VP of a staffing company. I volunteered at the Health Department for a year. Poor people were not as poor. We send billions over seas. We need to spend billions right here at home. Take care of the children. Let no child go to bed hungry by our selfish government. Let no elderly person decide between medication and food. Even with insurance of two different types, medicine is not free. Veterans are homeless. Single, unemployed people got assistance too, just very little. If you have never been down this road, sit down and shut up.
When I was unemployed, me and my child where turned down for assistance. We had to rely on family and friends to help us, we also went to a few of the local food pantries. Why should we support a government, that does not support us at times of need?
11. Condoms work! 12. Volunteer local food banks work because 27% of government assistance is used to buy illegal drugs. 13. The terms "my baby's momma" comes from men who remain single to maximize financial assistance for "momma."
I have been on TANF before. I went to the Career Center for 6 months and did my activity which was 20 hours in the computer lab working on numerous things to help find employment then I volunteered in the Career Center for 20 hours a week. I worked in the Resource Room helping individuals look for jobs, with unemployment, apply for food stamps and TANF and what ever else they may need help with. I learned a lot and when they had a position to come open and offered it to me. When that position ended I was lucky enough to get on with another Career Center in a different Region and have been there for 3 years now. I have learned so much and am very thankful for my job. Had I not been in the TANF program and gotten the experience that I needed I would not have this job now. I was humiliated to have to be on TANF because people always get the impression all the people that are on "welfare" are scum. Well I am not. I come from a respectful family and have good family families and have had all kinds of training and worked at the courthouse for 5 years. So I am not trash. I don't dress like scum. I take care of my children and they have never ever looked thrown away. I don't take the system for granted because there are people that ARE out there that do try and work and provide for their families but have problems trying to make ends meet. If there are two parent homes, both parents have to work these days because things are so expensive and the jobs are being cut to part time because the employers now days are cutting to part time so they don't have to pay for insurance. I help people find jobs, I help people with unemployment, I see this stuff every day all day. Some people do try to better themselves but it's hard these days. There are jobs out there but with so many people unemployed it seems like there are NO jobs. I live in one of the lowest poverty level county in my state so I see a lot of it and especially with the career field that I am. I see ones that come in and they are just taking advantage of the system and others are not. You can tell just by the way they carry themselves and how they act. It's sad all the way around. The ones that don't need the help are the ones that get it and the ones they actually do need the help can't get it.
1500 dollars a month income for a family of 3 is NOT considered poor? try living on it...
Twice a year Federal law requires Food Stamp recipients to fill out a 10 page form and include at least another 3 pages of documentation. This to prove their income. This law even includes those receiving SS benefits. Caseworkers can verify SS benefits via computer and eliminate the paperwork . Amending federal law to exclude these recipients by having caseworkers do the checking on in-house computers. This would save over 15% of the paperwork, decrease paper waste and free up manpower.