Welfare Checks: How Much of Society Gets Them? How Big are the Checks?

Few issues are as politically contentious as social payments. Social payments involve the government giving money to people in need. Here is a quick look at the prevalence and size of these payments:

Major Types of Social Assistance Programs

There are three major types of social payments programs in the US:

Program Costs

How much do these programs costs? The figure below was taken from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Social Security is by far the most expensive, absorbing nearly one-quarter of the federal budget, along with a substantial part of state budgets. It roughly costs as much as all health care spending (post-Affordable Care Act) and more than double the amount of all remaining social safety net programs combined.

Number of Recipients

The figure below describes the percentage of households receiving any money from these three social payments programs:

The number of people receiving all three types of assistance fell in numbers over the 1990s. In part, this was a byproduct of an extraordinarily long prosperity and strong labor markets. When jobs are bountiful and better paid, fewer people need public assistance.

Since 2001, America’s welfare system — at least the part of it that provides money to poor people — expanded considerably. Social Security recipients grew as a group since the mid-1990s. The proportion of households receiving welfare as cash payments (e.g., TANF, SNAP, traditional welfare checks) has grown steadily since 2001. Workers’ benefits have grown since the 2008 crisis.

Program Generosity

The figure below describes the median take from each of these three program types. This is the median receipts from each program type among all households receiving any money.

The median take from Social Security is by far the biggest and fastest-rising. In 1992, it was just over $8100. By 2013, it stood at $16,740. Payments more than doubled, and did so at a time whenincomes stagnated.

The take from workers’ programs also doubled, from $2,480 to $5,120, fueled by expansions to these programs after the crisis (e.g., extending eligibility for Unemployment Insurnace). Many of these program extensions have since expired, and they will probably be lower when the 2016 survey’s results are released.

Welfare, on the other hand, has not grown. In 1992, median welfare take stood at $2940. By 2013, it was $2,660.


America has a large welfare state, but it primarily serves the elderly. Social payments to the working age popluation and the poor are far less generous. Payments to the poor are low and have been shrinking, probably as a result of the political demonization of these programs.

Social spending has grew slowly but steadily from 2001 to 2010. This rise occurred at a time when household finances were steadily eroding under the weight of stagnant incomes, falling savings, and rising indebtedness.

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