Last week, the Cato Institute released a new study, The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off, 2013: An Analysis of the Total Level of Welfare Benefits by State. It showed that a family collecting welfare benefits from seven common programs – Temporary assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, Medicaid, WIC, public housing assistance, utilities assistance (LIHEAP) and free commodities – could receive more than what a minimum wage job would pay in 35 states, more than a $15 per hour job in 13 states, and more than a $20 per hour job in the eight most generous states. We concluded that the high value of welfare benefits might create a disincentive for recipients to leave welfare for work.
Unsurprisingly, our study has attracted criticism from several quarters. Some of those critics make valuable points that might improve future research, but most criticism falls far short of the mark.
Among the most frequent criticisms:
SNAP should be the basis of the package instead of TANF
Some of our critics have essentially attempted to redefine “welfare” to mean a program other than TANF. Our analysis started with a family on TANF and then looked at what additional programs the family would receive. By starting with a much larger program, such as food stamps (SNAP), our critics are able to – correctly – argue that relatively few SNAP recipients also receive TANF benefits.
However, while SNAP has indeed grown in size and significance in recent years, TANF should continue to be the basis for determining welfare packages. TANF, and traditional cash assistance, have long been considered the quintessential “welfare” program, and its importance can be seen in legislative history. For example, it was the foundation and focus of the 1996 reforms that are cited as “welfare reform.” TANF is also more tightly targeted at the population we attempt to analyze in this paper; as is often cited, SNAP, in addition to serving low-income non-working families, also serves significant numbers of elderly and disabled people, as well as a higher proportion of working families. For instance, in 2011 almost 17 percent of SNAP households were above the federal poverty guidelines (FPL).
Single adults receive less/this hypothetical family is not representative
It is certainly true that a single adult would receive less than a family, due to the very nature of the welfare programs, but we feel our hypothetical family is more representative. The average household size for TANF in the most recent available data was exactly 3.0 people, while at the same time only six percent of TANF households were only one person. Looking at SNAP, a significant proportion of those single-person recipient households were either disabled or elderly, so a single, nondisabled, working age adult is not representative of that population either. In a larger sense, the majority of the expenditures for these programs are not on these childless adults, so the focus should remain on households with dependent children.
Not everyone receives all the benefits from these programs
Another critique notes that not everyone on welfare receives benefits from all seven of the programs that we included. Therefore, it is said, our study inflated the total amount of benefits.
We agree that not every family on welfare receives all benefits. In fact, the study specifically says, “Not every welfare recipient fits the profile used in this study, and many who do fit it do not receive every benefit listed.” It even included a chart (Figure 16) showing the value of a smaller package of benefits.