Briefing Book

What Millions on Welfare?

A quick corrective.

By Martha Coven

Tagged Briefing BookWelfare

In his address to Congress Tuesday night, President Trump said he hoped to see “millions lifted from welfare to work.” Implying, of course, that there are millions of people on welfare.


Back in the 1990s, President Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” and transformed the program from an individual entitlement to a block grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It has been dwindling ever since, and so has the number of people receiving help.

In an average month in 2016, there were approximately 600,000 adults receiving welfare in the entire country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (A larger number of children receive assistance directed at them, not an adult; this happens, for example, when children are being raised by a grandparent.) In fact, an American adult is far more likely to be a millionaire these days than to get TANF assistance. Most people down on their luck don’t even bother to apply for help, and those who do routinely get denied.

Perhaps President Trump was thinking of food stamps (now called SNAP), which he mentioned earlier in his speech. But 90 percent of SNAP families with children who are able to work are already working, worked just before they got help, or go to work after receiving benefits. For the millions who work while receiving SNAP (and here, we are talking millions), their wages just aren’t high enough to reliably pay the rent and get dinner on the table. You know what would give them a “lift”? A minimum wage increase, for starters.

In more ways than one, President Trump’s worldview feels stuck in the 1980s, when President Reagan famously decried so-called “welfare queens.” If he actually spent more time with people living in the inner cities he talks so much about, or the rural stretches of our nation where poverty is acute, he might have a better appreciation for what’s happened in the intervening decades.

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Martha Coven served in the Obama White House as special assistant to the President at the Domestic Policy Council and associate director at the Office of Management and Budget. She is a visiting professor at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. The views expressed here are her own.

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