Stereotypes About Welfare Recipients’ Spending Habits Are Wrong

Written by Bryce Covert

The stereotype of the low-income people enrolled in government programs is that they spend the money on frivolities and are unwise with their budgets. But the data proves otherwise. Families who receive public benefits such as housing assistance, welfare cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security Income (SSI) for the disabled or low-income elderly have much smaller spending budgets than those who don’t receive benefits and spend a bigger portion on the basics such as food, housing, and transportation, according to an analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On average, families who are enrolled in these public programs spend less than half of what families who aren’t enrolled spend. They also put a bigger percentage of that money toward food, housing, and transportation, devoting 77 percent of their budgets to these necessities compared to about 65 percent for other families. Meanwhile, they spend less, on average, on some things thought to be luxuries like eating out and entertainment. A family that doesn’t get public benefits spends 4.5 percent of its budget on “food away from home,” while a two-parent family who gets benefits spends 4 percent of its budget on eating out and a single parent spends 3.6 percent. “Food away from home spending was higher in both dollar amount and percent of total spending among families not receiving assistance,” the report notes. Families who don’t need assistance also spend more on entertainment in both dollar and percentage terms and devote more of their budgets to “other” expenses.

Families who receive benefits are also more likely to go without higher priced items like houses and cars. Just 3 percent of families who don’t get benefits went without a car, compared to nearly a quarter of those on the rolls. On average, a family that isn’t enrolled in public programs has about two cars, while a family that is enrolled has about one. Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of families not receiving assistance are homeowners, while the opposite is true for families who do need the support: just about three-quarters are renters instead of homeowners.

And while the stereotype of the “welfare queen” is a woman who has more children to increase the benefits she gets from government programs, families who are enrolled look similar to those who aren’t. “Average family size was the same (3.7 persons), whether or not a family received assistance,” the report notes.

In reality, many of these benefits that families rely on are paltry and, worse, have recently shrunk. The value of benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), formerly known as welfare, have fallen so that their purchasing power is less than what it was in 1996 for the vast majority of recipients. A family of three that relies solely on TANF won’t be able to make market rent for a two-bedroom apartment and will live at just 50 percent of the poverty line, or $9,765 a year. Food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were reduced in November to an average of less than $1.40 a meal and more cuts are likely on their way after Congress agrees to a new farm bill. Housing assistance from the Section 8 rental voucher program got hammered by sequestration and local authorities had to rescind vouchers from those who had gotten off waiting lists, freeze the lists, and reduce the amount of rent each voucher would cover.

Still, these programs represent a vital lifeline. Government programs such as SNAP, SSI, housing assistance, cash assistance, and others kept millions out of poverty last year.

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Kathy Johnson
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

living month to month, check to check, is NOT how we WANT to live.

Susan T.
Susan T4 years ago

Robert H. you have no idea what I typed do you? read it again dear. have a great day

John H.
John H4 years ago

There's been a few references to the real fraud and government waste, corporate welfare is downright nauseating as well. There's so many examples that there just isn't time or space; one group I'd like to mention is the small, family American farmer. Little or no help for them but these huge conglomerate factory farms just rake it in. Totally unfair, and to tie SNAP to the farm bill, what the hell?
People who pay no taxes that begrudge children a peanut butter sandwich?
Dem dam welfare queens selling benefits for cigs and alcohol? Bet it's not Grey Goose martinis and Cuban cigars our congress-folk use to butter up the latest marks at our expense.
Truth be told, if we all opened our eyes there would be a hell of a lot more "what the f*kc"
Even worse; those who look down on the less fortunate. Ignorant & pitiful, do you think you're immune? Do you somehow 'deserve' to have more than others? Are you genetically superior?
Or is there something wrong with the millions of Americans who are being displaced and who's safety nets are being systematically dismantled?
I used to be a people person, time has changed that.
Care 2 has given me some hope but as I look at the places many progressives are from I realize good people are few and far between. Guess we'll all just have to keep tilting at windmills.

Sharon Perry
sharon L Perry4 years ago

Being on welfare is a good tool in learning how to survive on little. How to plan your money and how to eat.. I know. But having to receive canned foods from food banks is the worst of the worst and bad foods.

Karen H.
Karen H4 years ago

I’m a senior who thought I’d have enough money for retirement. Then my job went away and I couldn’t find another, there were major medical bills and other expenses, and the retirement savings are pretty much depleted. My partner and I are both on Social Security, get help with food, and are on “medically needy” to help with medical expenses (my partner was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and I’m recuperating from a major heart attack and stroke). We also get free phones because of our low income.
We can pay our monthly expenses (mortgage, utilities, co-pays for doctors and prescriptions) and have to use Social Security to help buy food because we don’t get enough to cover an entire month’s meals.
Joseph B, I got no increase in my food allowance. I did get a small increase in Social Security, which resulted in a DECREASE in my EBT bucks. My partner gets $15/month for food. Can you live on that?
If either of us died, the other would be out on the street because neither of us get enough Social Security to pay the mortgage and utilities.
Frivolities? The last time we went to the movies was over a year ago. We had no holiday decorations this year (can’t afford a high electric bill), and exchanged no gifts.
Do we feel sorry for ourselves? No! I feel sorry for the misguided people who would begrudge me my “treat” of a chocolate bar last week.

Robert H.
Robert Hamm4 years ago

HAHAHAAHAHAHAA Susan another one loooking at the powerless little guy as the source of the problem when its the powerful BIG guy CAUSING the problem.

Susan T.
Susan T4 years ago

how does a family have "about 2 cars"
I think the government should go after people like the surfer dude who spends his $200 a month on sushi & lobster and make that asshole get a job.
In the meantime my Mom who is retired got her benefits cut to $15 a month. does the surfer cheater still get his bennies from the government?

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

continued from below. This should trigger some red flags. Same behavior, lower income. Lower income due to lower wage.Excessive use of these substances is called 'self medicateing' because they trigger pleasure centers in the brain. This is what lots of people do when they're living a crappy life. THE SYSTEM NEEDS AN OVERHAUL. Whoes not letting the money trickle down? Where is it being damed up? And why are the canaries in the mine being treated like parisites when we are your early warning system to whom you are not listening!

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

It occured to me that one of the main reasons for sterotyping poor people is to keep the government from getting accurate feedback on how it's policys are working, and if it's money theories actually work in the long run for the benefit of the majority of it's people.So to those of us who have always been the working poor and unpaid home makers, do not be shamed or made to feel you are the problem. You are the boots on the ground who are living the results of decades of ideas that were designed for an earlier time.Those who want to define us as 'needy victims' are as unhelpful as those who call us lazy. We are just low income people scattered thru out this huge country doing the best we can with the way things have played out, but it's time we insisted on respect for our contributions, AND demand IMPROVEMENT in the safety net programs so we no longer have to struggle or feel like we're supposed to make the failed policies work so the over paid can go on thinking they have 'worked' for their big money but we have not. Playing by the rules means we lose as long as the deck is stacked against us and it is or the status quo types wouldn't have to keep cutting our benefits that we must depend on.When it's called 'fraud' if welfare people spend some of their benefits on alcahal and smokes but then never give us credit for our contibutions, while those making more money do the same because they're giving a proper picture of how things are supposed to work, this should trigger some r

Doreen Amadatsu
Doreen Amadatsu4 years ago

Stero-typing of people on welfare is wrong as even seniors who supposedly have a good pension struggle to pay necessary bills and the paltry cost of living does not help to pay necessary items like clothing, groceries and bills. People in businesses, banks ect have to realize before they raise their costs what the effect will be on those who struggle just to live. Having said that there must be more help given to find employment for those who want to work and need help to find jobs.