U.S. welfare spending rises overall but declines for very poorest families

Government aid tends to go to those who work, are married, have kids

Although the United States is spending more on welfare than ever before, most of that money is going to better-off families rather than to the very poorest.

Image caption: Robert A. Moffitt

Robert A. Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, found that the U.S. has gotten more generous over time in supporting low-income families, spending 74 percent more inflation-adjusted dollars on welfare programs in 2007 than in 1975. But for the 2.5 million single-parent families with the absolute lowest levels of earnings, aid dropped 35 percent between 1983 and 2004. During that same period, aid rose 74 percent for those earning slightly more.

"You would think that the government would offer the most support to those who have the lowest incomes and provide less help to those with higher incomes," Moffitt said. "But that is not the case."

Moffitt, who is president of the Population Association of America, presented his findings May 2 at the organization's annual meeting in a keynote address titled "The Deserving Poor, the Family, and the U.S. Welfare System." The report is expected to be published next year in the journal Demography.

Moffitt researched the 15 largest social safety net programs over the last 30 years and found spending to assist the poor dramatically increased, especially since the mid-1980s. He also examined who was getting that money and discovered three major trends:

  • There was a marked shift away from those earning the least money—as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line—to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line. That means in 2014, a family of four earning $11,925 a year likely got less aid than a same-sized family earning $47,700.

  • More assistance is going to the elderly and the disabled and less to the non-aged and non-disabled.

  • Spending has shifted to married parent families and away from single parent families.

Though welfare spending was up overall, Moffitt found the programs with the most growth tended to assist only specialized populations. These included the Supplemental Security Income program (which helps only people who are elderly, blind, and disabled), the Earned Income Tax Credit program (which offers tax credits only to working people and mainly to families earning $10,000 to $20,000), and the Child Tax Credit (which helps only those with significant taxable income).

The Food Stamp program, which also expanded greatly, does help everyone but provides only about $5 per day per person.

Overall, Moffitt discovered a distinct trend of welfare benefits going to those who are regarded as "deserving" of support. More directly put, the government and voters prefer that aid go to those who work, who are married, and who have kids, Moffitt said.

Single parents who are not disabled and are younger than 62 received 20 percent less from the government in 2004 than in 1983. Of those families, those with incomes 50 percent below the poverty line took the biggest hit with an aid drop of 35 percent. Those with incomes above 50 percent of the poverty line actually saw an increase of 73 percent.

"We see a pattern—rising support for those who work and declining support for those who do not," Moffitt said. "The decline of support to families with non-employed members and to single parents seems to be rooted in the presumption that they have not taken personal responsibility for their own situation."

While Moffitt agreed that work should be rewarded and that those who are capable of work should be required to do so, he recommended that those who are making an effort but are not able to find good-paying jobs receive more support than they are currently receiving.

Moffitt's most recent research, published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, showed how U.S. aid programs expanded to help Americans during the Great Recession.