The Welfare State’s Cost to American Taxpayers

The Welfare State’s Cost to American Taxpayers


In the U.S. today,[1] there are more than 80 federal means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to low-income residents. An October 2012 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) indicates that as of 2011, federal spending on these programs had reached $746 billion per year—more than expenditures for Medicare ($480 billion), Social Security ($725 billion), or the military ($540 billion). In addition, state contributions into federal welfare programs amounted to $201 billion annually, while independent state programs contributed another $9 billion. All told, means-tested welfare spending from federal and state sources (combined) was $956 billion. This figure represents an increase of 32% over the level of welfare spending that was in place at the beginning of the Obama presidency.

America’s $956 billion in annual welfare spending is distributed among approximately 100 million people—i.e., one-third of the U.S. population—who each month receive aid from at least one of the country’s 80+ welfare programs. Average benefits amount to approximately $9,500 per recipient. If converted entirely to cash, these benefits equal more than five times the amount of money needed to lift every poor person in the United States out of poverty.

Each year, approximately 143 million federal income tax returns are filed in the United States. Of these, about 58 million have no tax liability after taking deductions and credits, leaving roughly 85 million people to shoulder the nation’s entire federal income tax burden. It is these 85 million people who fund the $746 billion federal portion of the nation’s total welfare spending. On average, each of them spends $8,776 to keep federal welfare programs afloat.

As of January 2009, only four of the 80+ federal welfare programs in existence had work requirements for their recipients; the Obama Administration subsequently suspended those requirements in two of the four programs. Most notable was its elimination of the provision in the 1996 welfare reform legislation (known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) requiring that after three months on food stamps, able-bodied adult recipients with no children must become engaged in some kind of work activity for a minimum of 20 hours per week in order to remain eligible for assistance. The termination of this requirement caused the number of healthy, childless food-stamp beneficiaries to double, from 1.9 million to 3.9 million. All told, the total number of food stamp recipients nationwide reached 46.7 million by 2012—up from about 32 million in 2008.

In a related measure, the Obama Administration has actively recruited new welfare recipients. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has engaged in an aggressive outreach campaign to boost enrollment in the food stamp program, arguing that “every dollar of … benefits generates $1.84 in the economy… It’s the most direct stimulus you can get.”

Obama’s long-term projected budgets do not call for any post-recession cuts to welfare expenditures. In 2012, for instance, he advocated $12.7 trillion in spending on means-tested welfare over the next decade.

This article was written in November 2012.

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