Welfare is the statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need. It is the government support intended to help people meet their basic needs like food and shelter.
In the United States, there are six major welfare programs:
- Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
- Housing assistance
Welfare vs. Entitlement
The four major entitlement programs in the United States are Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation. What sets welfare programs apart from the entitlement programs are the eligibility requirements for welfare programs.
Each of the six welfare programs has its own eligibility requirements an all include a maximum income requirement. Income requirements are usually set by the states and are determined as a percentage of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). The federal standard is 130% of the FPL, but sometimes states have modified eligibility standards. For example, to be eligible for SNAP in Florida, most households need a gross income less than or equal to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.
One must prove that they are eligible for welfare programs to receive welfare benefits. In contrast, everyone is titled to entitlement programs regardless of their income as long as they contributed to that program (usually through paying taxes).
Welfare Funding in the U.S.
The U.S. federal government provides funding for welcome programs, but the states administer the programs. Some states provide additional funding to expand the programs.
Congress often debates welfare programs and considers reducing their funding. If Congress reduces funding for a program without reducing a state’s responsibilities for that program, it creates an unfunded mandate. This causes state and local governments, and sometimes even private sectors, to fill in the gaps in funding.
Negative Perceptions about Welfare
There are many misconceptions about welfare and who receives welfare. These programs have been subject to public scrutiny for a long time, causing those who receive aid to feel shame.
The welfare programs are often viewed with negativity because of the common “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideas in the U.S. Many people view welfare recipients as undeserving or as people who are cheating the system. Welfare recipients are also often assumed to share a range of characteristics, most of which have racist and classist undertones.
One common myth about welfare is that recipients are unmotivated and not working. About 73% of recipients are from working families. Some programs, such as TANF, actually require that families work, but they might just need assistance until they are financially stable. Income inequality is another factor contributing to working individuals needing financial help.
The second misconception is that welfare recipients are mostly people of color, rooted in racist assumptions. It is also untrue: about 40% of SNAP recipients are white, making white people the largest racial group on food stamps. This is despite the systemic inequalities that put people of color behind white people in terms of wage earnings.
Third, people believe that undocumented populations are stealing welfare benefits from U.S. citizens who need them. This is both false and impossible. Undocumented folks are not eligible for welfare programs. Even for immigrants who are legal U.S. residents, federal welfare programs have stringent criteria for eligibility.
The fourth myth about welfare is that women are working the system’s loopholes, known as “welfare queens.” This is a racialized term used to describe women accused of cheating the system to receive maximum benefits. This term can be traced back to 1976 when Ronald Reagan talked about one woman in Chicago who used multiple names, addresses, and telephone numbers to collect food stamps and other government benefits. Her benefits amounted to over $150,000 per year. This incident is an exception, not the rule. Welfare programs have restrictions in place to prevent this type of incident from happening.
Another misconception about welfare is that people who go on welfare will “freeload” off it for years, even after they don’t need it. This is not possible, as recipients cannot receive benefits unless they demonstrate a dire need for assistance. TANF programs have a lifetime limit of five years. These restrictions can often prevent some people from accessing the support they need. Many families use welfare to build their finances back up and get back on their feet with no intention of staying on it longer than needed.
One final myth about welfare is that the programs are wasting taxpayer money. UC Berkeley found that welfare programs cost taxpayers about $152.8 billion every year. Compared to other federal spending, such as defense spending, this a small percentage of the overall federal budget. It also indicates a need for better wages and is not even close to being enough for low-income families in the U.S. These tax dollars aren’t wasted - they’re helping families who desperately need it.
Drug Testing for Welfare
Almost all U.S. states have enacted or proposed legislation requiring drug testing of people applying for welfare. The push for drug-testing started in 1996 with a federal welfare reform for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Drug testing for welfare applicants and recipients is a controversial topic. Some believe that benefits can be difficult enough to receive without drug testing, and testing could unfairly target people’s past. Additionally, drug-testing could fall down a slippery slope of unjustly profiling people, especially because of their race. On the other hand, supporters argue that people often have to pass drug tests at their jobs, so people should have to pass them to receive federally funded assistance.
In 2009, over 20 states proposed legislation that would require drug testing as part of eligibility for welfare programs. The following year, at least 12 states had similar proposals. None of these proposals became law. Three states passed legislation in 2011, four states enacted laws in 2012, two states passed legislation in 2013, and three states passed legislation in 2014. This brought the total to 12 states. In 2015, Arkansas and Wisconsin enacted legislation, followed by West Virginia in 2016. This means 15 states require drug testing for welfare.
The fifteen states that drug-test welfare applicants are: