Welfare is the statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need. It is 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 Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and 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 entitlement programs are the eligibility requirements for welfare programs. Each of the six welfare programs has its own eligibility requirements and 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, households must have 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 by paying taxes.
Welfare Funding in the U.S.
The U.S. federal government provides funding for welfare programs while programs are administered by the states. 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. Welfare programs are often viewed with negativity because of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality in the U.S. People with this viewpoint see welfare recipients as undeserving or as people 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 recipients work; these workers just need assistance until they are financially stable. Income inequality is another factor contributing to working individuals needing financial help. Because of wages, not everyone who works is able to pay for necessities such as food and shelter without some form of assistance. TANF programs also have a lifetime limit of five years. Many families use welfare to build their finances and get back on their feet with no intention of staying on it longer than needed.
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 fact is in spite of the systemic inequalities that put people of color behind white people in terms of wage earnings. People relatedly believe that undocumented populations are “stealing” welfare benefits from U.S. citizens who need them. This is both false and impossible. Undocumented people are not eligible for welfare programs. Even for immigrants who are legal U.S. residents, federal welfare programs have stringent criteria for eligibility.
The “welfare queen,” is a racialized stereotype that can be traced back to Ronald Regan in 1976 and is used to describe women accused of cheating the system to receive maximum benefits. Reagan described 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.
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 is a small percentage of the overall federal budget. It also indicates a need for better wages as current welfare benefits are 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. Supporters, however, argue that because jobs often require passing drug tests for employment, there should similarly be a requirement 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. Since then, similar legislation has continued to be proposed and eventually passed in multiple states.
Currently, twelve states require drug testing for welfare. The states that drug test welfare applicants are: West Virginia (2016), Arkansas (2015), Wisconsin (2015), Michigan (2014), Alabama (2014), Mississippi (2014), Kansas (2013), North Carolina (2013), Utah (2012), Georgia (2014), Tennessee (2012), Oklahoma (2012), Arizona (2009), Florida (2013), and Missouri (2011). Each of these states has different standards for who will be drug tested. Some only drug test those applicants who have a history of drug abuse or dependence, while others are randomly drug tested. Florida tests all applicants, even if there is no history or suspicion of drug use.