Ten myth-busting facts about welfare

By Heather Hahn :: September 11th, 2013



TANF myths (1)

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.

Illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute. Block photos from Shutterstock.


  1. Bruce Lesley  ::  2:31 am on September 15th, 2013:

    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.

  2. We can end child poverty. Or, at least, do more.  ::  2:40 pm on September 16th, 2013:

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  8. Sandy Campbell  ::  3:45 am on November 7th, 2014:

    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.

  9. D L Powell  ::  2:28 pm on November 9th, 2014:


  10. mitch abramson  ::  3:09 am on November 10th, 2014:

    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.

  11. Name *  ::  4:29 am on November 10th, 2014:

    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.

  12. Steve Secor  ::  3:51 am on November 11th, 2014:

    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~

  13. Bob C  ::  5:35 am on November 12th, 2014:

    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

  14. cwyrick  ::  3:16 am on November 13th, 2014:

    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?

  15. An Lamb  ::  3:08 am on November 14th, 2014:

    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?

  16. allenwoll  ::  6:27 am on November 16th, 2014:

    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.

  17. Dr Tom  ::  3:46 am on November 19th, 2014:

    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.”

  18. Joe From Hell  ::  4:28 am on November 20th, 2014:

    1500 dollars a month income for a family of 3 is NOT considered poor? try living on it…