Updated May 23, 2016

23 Statistics of Welfare in America

Read more about Kids and Money

Who receives welfare and how much do they get? We uncovered 23 shocking statistics about public assistance in America. What you read may surprise you.

Welfare Statistics

Curious about what kind of people receive welfare in America? The answers we found may not be what you think.

Read on for the breakdown on the % of Americans on welfare, including by race, by welfare abuse, and by how much welfare pays.

In today's economic climate, millions of Americans find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Despite improvements in the job market and a housing bounce back, there are still many people who need help to stay afloat financially. In many ways, the America of today mirrors that of the Depression-era, when the first national welfare system was introduced.

Welfare programs were originally designed to help stabilize the economy and get struggling families back on their feet, a goal that's often overshadowed by the stereotypes and misconceptions people tend to have about the system in general.

In an effort to separate some of the fact from fiction, CreditDonkey conducted a comprehensive study of key welfare statistics.


People who have never had to rely on welfare sometimes tend to have a set idea in their minds of who the average recipient is. To put things into perspective, we begin our study with some basic numbers on just who is reaping the benefits of welfare programs.

  1. What percentage of Americans are on welfare?
    Through the fourth quarter of 2012, there were nearly 110 million Americans receiving some form of government assistance. That's right around 35% of the total U.S. population.

  2. How many Americans receive food stamps?
    As of September 2014, about 46.5 million people (or 15%) were receiving food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

  3. How many get Medicaid benefits?
    Medicaid is a health care program that provides free or low-cost care to qualifying individuals and families. As of 2012, there were some 83 million people (or 26%) receiving Medicaid benefits.

  4. What is the gender breakdown of those receiving welfare?
    Women are more likely to seek help through welfare programs. Close to 25% of those aged 16 to 64 were receiving benefits as of 2011. Among men in the same age range, slightly more than 19% received some type of welfare.

  5. What percentage of children are on welfare?
    Children are more likely to be on welfare than adults, with 38% of kids aged 5 and under living in households that receive public assistance. Almost 35% of kids aged 6 to 10 and 32% of those in the 11- to 15-year-old range are on welfare.

  6. What state has the highest number of welfare recipients?
    As of 2012, California topped the list for welfare recipients, with nearly 515,000 relying on government-funded programs. Alaska, however, has the highest per capita rate with about 7% of households getting benefits.

  7. What state has the most people on food stamps?
    Approximately 145,000 Washington, D.C., residents receive food stamps. That's nearly 22% of the district's total population.

  8. How long do most people participate in the program?
    About 31% of people receiving any kind of public assistance stay in the program for a year or less. 43% receive benefits between 3 to 4 years. Housing assistance programs see the most long-term participants (over 3 years), while cash assistance program tend to have the most short-term participants (under a year).

  9. What do most people on welfare spend the money on?
    Many people stereotype welfare receivers as spending the money unwisely, but data shows that for families receiving assistance, 77% of the budget is used towards basic necessities such as housing, food, and transportation (compared to 65% for families not receiving assistance). Entertainment only accounts for 4.4% of the budget.


Aside from looking at the age and gender of welfare recipients, we wanted to take things one step further. We focused on some specific demographics to paint a more accurate image of who in America gets help through public assistance.

  1. How do ethnicities break down?
    For 2011, here's the breakdown of welfare recipients: 16.3% of Non-Hispanic Whites. 39.7% of Non-Hispanic Blacks. 36.4% of Hispanics. Hispanics represent the fastest rate of growth for any demographic group (a 15% increase since the year 2000).

    Note: Recipiency is defined as living in a family with receipt of any amount of AFDC/TANF, SSI or SNAP during the year.

  2. What percentage of welfare recipients are immigrants?
    There are approximately 40 million immigrants living in the U.S., both legal and illegal, and a decent number of them receive some form of welfare. For example, 20% of adult immigrants and nearly half of children from immigrant households had Medicaid coverage in 2011. About 30% of non-citizens received food stamps that same year.

  3. How many senior citizens are on welfare?
    Seniors are often overlooked in discussions about welfare. Just shy of 13% of adults aged 65 and over are drawing some type of government benefit.

  4. How many families seek benefits?
    About 14.6% of households headed by a married couple were on welfare in 2011. That's double the number that received benefits in 2000.

  5. How many single mothers receive welfare?
    Households headed by single mothers are the most likely to be on welfare. In 2011, single moms represented 55% of the total welfare population, compared to just 37% in 2000.

  6. Is there a correlation between welfare recipients and education level?
    About 37% of people who did not graduate high school received welfare resistance, with about half of them needing aid for over 3 years. About 22% of high school graduates and 10% of those who attended college for at least a year received aid.


One of the biggest complaints that critics of welfare have concerns the cost. A tremendous amount of money is spent on welfare programs each year and recipients benefit more in some states than others.

  1. How much cash assistance do families get?
    As of 2012, the median monthly payout for a family of three was $427 . Mississippi pays the least, at $170, while Alaska pays the most, at $923.

  2. What's the average amount of food stamps received?
    Some states are more generous than others when it comes to food stamps but on average, families get just over $133 per person each month.

  3. What about Medicaid?
    As of 2011, Medicaid spending averaged $5,790 per person enrolled in the program nationwide. On an individual level, the average benefit for elderly participants was $13,249 while an average of $16,643 was spent annually on individuals with disabilities.

  4. How much does the government spend on welfare programs?
    There are dozens of state and federally sponsored welfare programs. When you consider them all collectively, it comes to around $1 trillion in spending each year.

  5. Which state offers the highest welfare payout?
    Due to an extremely high cost of living, residents of Hawaii receive the most in welfare benefits, averaging a hair over $49,000 annually.

  6. Which state pays the least?
    Mississippi consistently ranks as the poorest state in the U.S. and welfare recipients feel the pinch. Here, the average benefit package comes in at slightly less than $17,000 per year.

  7. How rampant is welfare fraud?
    Gauging the scope of the welfare fraud problem is difficult. One federal agency estimates that on average, 8% of welfare payments are issued improperly, either due to fraud or government error.

  8. How much does welfare fraud cost?
    Altogether, improper welfare payments cost the government about $50 billion annually. The food stamp program claims the largest share, at $2.7 billion.


While there are inevitably going to be some bad apples in the bunch, many of the people who get help from welfare programs do so as a short-term fix while they take steps to improve their financial well-being. Hopefully, by looking at the big picture, we've been able to shed some light on what the realities of welfare are for those who benefit from it.

Sources and References:

Rebecca Lake is a journalist at CreditDonkey, a personal finance comparison and reviews website. Write to Rebecca Lake at rebecca@creditdonkey.com. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest posts.

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