Does Welfare Work?

Does Welfare Work?

That, my friends, is a billion dollar question with no easy “one size fits all” answer.

For starters, “welfare” as commonly defined consists of a number of totally independent programs, including unemployment compensation, food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and Section 8 (HUD) housing. It is entirely possible that some of these are more effective than others. It is also possible that the same program is effective for some segments of the population and not for others — or even for specific individuals and not for others.

A sophisticated analysis would necessarily include both “macro” and “micro” viewpoints. In other words, both the aggregate impact of these programs nationally and the impact on specific people (or at least sub-population groups) would need to be considered. Another complicating factor is that statistics on the number of people living in poverty or taking advantage of various forms of government assistance, by themselves, do not lead to incontrovertible conclusions. Trend analysis helps, but sometimes the question still remains: what would the statistics be if the programs didn’t exist? What would the statistics be if the programs were fully funded and accessible to all those eligible who desire to participate (which they aren’t)?

A short article  clearly cannot do justice to this infinitely complex issue. However, a few interesting points can be considered.

Let’s start with a little macro-analysis. If social welfare programs work, then countries with more extensive programs should report a smaller percent of their population living in poverty. And that is exactly what we find. According to UNICEF, the percentage of children living in poverty in 2005 was: Denmark, 2.4%; France, 7.5%, Norway, 13.4%; Canada, 14.9%; United Kingdom, 15.4%; United States, 21.9%. (Thank goodness for Mexico — 27.7%.)

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures general well-being, with special emphasis on child welfare. Ratings released in 2009, covering the period up to 2007, reveal the following: the U.S. ranks 13th, in a virtual tie with Austria, Spain, and Denmark, surpassed by some countries noted for extensive welfare programs: Norway, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Finland.

Here’s a statistic that might surprise some detractors of welfare programs; among all households receiving food stamps, almost twice as many include at least one working adult as those that don’t. In other words, receipt of this particular type of government aid does not discourage work (at least in many families); it supplements a wage that is inadequate to provide the essentials of life. (An anonymous commenter to this blog recently accused me of being “deluded” because I get my information from the Washington Post and the New York Times. I plead guilty to the latter and not guilty to the former. But the information in this paragraph comes from the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

According to the Food Research and Action Center, only 56% of people eligible for food stamps nationwide actually receive benefits. Some people are not aware that they are eligible; others are dissuaded from participation by misunderstandings about the nature of the program and/or difficulties in getting to offices during the work day.

Tired of macro-analysis? If you are unaware that literally millions of individuals (including some people who made six-figure incomes prior to the bursting of the bubble in late 2008) are out of work through no fault of their own and hanging onto life itself only by virtue of the social service safety net, then you’re out of touch with reality.

Should all this matter? It only matters if we Americans truly believe in the principles enunciated by our founding documents. (Remember the Pursuit of Happiness? Have you tried doing that on an empty stomach? Recall that business about Promoting the General Welfare? I don’t think the founders had bankers and sellers of financial derivatives in mind when they wrote that.) According to a study published recently in the American Journal of Public Health, poverty actually results in a loss of 8.2 “years of perfect health” — exceeding the effect of either obesity or smoking.

Since welfare apparently works at least some of the time for a large number of people, how should we pay for it? Should it be voluntary (charitable), as “anonymous” recently recommended? Tune in next week for my thoughts on the matter.

Ron Wolff

Ronald Wolff publishes the blog Musings from Claremont, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.


  1. Jesse Phillips says

    So, I wish you had more stats here. I’d like to know how many families are using welfare and for how long. I wish that participation in welfare programs included a smart form of motivating people to look for and find work. I don’t believe it does. The people I know on welfare are not at all motivated or giving effort toward finding jobs.

    I believe there is a very strong sense of entitlement among many people on welfare, who are trying to get the most they can from the government, somehow feeling it is owed them. I believe this mindset is partly why the system does not work.

    • says

      I love your rationale — impeccable logic, based on hard, verifiable data! Congrats — you get an A+ for “critical thinking.”

  2. pegw says

    The problem with welfare is it makes the people lazy. They just lay around & wait for the government to send them checks. They do not even seem to bother to make sure their children get a good education. The few hard working people in the country have to pay taxes to support these people & I personally believe in capatilism, working hard & the American Dream. I believe in giving to certain charities of my choice & not the governments choice & I do not like taxing real charities & I heard Obama may do, I do not like taxing the rich more, the corporations more or telling them what they can pay their CEO’s. I am not rich & do not have a big corporation but I still do NOT believe in spreading the wealth around. I feel that if you keep taxing big corporations & try to tell them how to run their business they will just close down or take their business & jobs to another country. People are responsible for theirselves. Bill Clinton, I hate to say, was right about one thing at that was when he was in office he did help to get the people on welfare trained in jobs & helped them to find one & got a lot of them off welfare & let them stand up & be proud of their accomplishments again. But now that we got Obama in office & he wants to beat people & their pride down by keeping them on welfare or unemployment & not letting the job market open back up again. No one especially with small business will venture out & hire more employees with the taxes going up, trying to force the businesses to give health benefits that they can’t afford to do, & cap & trade that will by his words cause electric bills to skyrocket. The American people cannot afford this so called healthcare bill that is going to be rationed, socialized, government run healthcare & 85% of people have health insurance that we like they want to add 40% to the insurance companies to add on to our bills. So what will happen is the insurance companies will go out of business & we will all be forced into this rationed socialized that will cost us more money for less coverage. Before Obama is through with us we will be a Banana Republic. His problem is he goes over to other countries & embarrasses us by apologizing for us & for what? He said we have been demissive, derissive, & arrogant at times? I think he was describing himself because he will not listen to the grass roots on this side of the aisle.He is dividing the country by class & I think it is deliberate action on his part. He will not listen to anyone that does not agree with him. They call the Republican party the party of NO. It is the Conservative people & some Democrats that are saying NO. We are the people of No & he will not listen to us or the tea partys to find out why. The Townhall meetings that had a lot of seniors in them Pelosi called Astro Turf & were getting paid & Nazi’s. She has lost touch with the American people pretending she cares & she is so obviously a liar. Look how much money she got for her husband’s tuna business when it got hit last year with a tsunami. Why do you think if this healthcare plan is so great that they are only forcing the American public on it? They get to keep their good insurance & gave themselves substantial raises when the economy of the country is so bad. We are in so much debt with China & Obama keeps spending & spending. He promised money in Copenhagen for the climate change & to third world countries. Let us be reasonalble here. You cannot take so much money into a third world country that needs medical supplies, doctors, homes, clothes, food, etc. & spend it on climate change!!!! That’s sort of like putting the cart before the horse. Where is common sense in this administration. We are going under fast. All these countries are sitting back & watching & probably making bets on how long it is going to take Obama to totally destroy us. We are not a socialist country, or a weak country. We are the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA % darn PROUD OF IT. WE ARE NOT A WELFARE COUNTRY. People will work if you give them back their country & get out of the way. Stop trying to force socialist programs on us. Let us stand up & be proud again!!!!!!!!!!!!Thank you for allowing my post.

  3. Marshall says

    Currently I am helping with living costs to a child who is unemployed. Has a small job and food stamps. I paid for a course to retrain child for another job. This is welfare and charity to the same person. I can do this for a short timme and I am glad I can do this. I know some who look unpon welfare as an earned benefit.


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