Years After the Recession, Welfare Rolls Hit New Highs

New Census data shows that the number of households receiving welfare benefits hit a record high of almost 33.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2012. While part of the surge was due to the recession, the proportion receiving benefits has increased from 25.2 percent to 27.4 percent since the recession officially ended in June 2009. These inflated welfare rolls are not just a temporary response to an economic downturn, and could instead become the new normal. This poses a problem not only for the country as a whole, but for the individuals beneficiaries as well.  These welfare programs could eventually become unaffordable as programs for the elderly take up an increasing share of our budget. At the same time, for a record number of beneficiaries the structure of our current system could actually make it less likely they escape poverty for good.

Of particular concern are the households participating in three or more means-tested non-cash programs, which has also increased significantly, rising from 7.3 percent of all households at the end of the recession to 8.6 percent by the end of 2012. Participation in multiple programs is even more commonplace among families headed by a single mother, similar to the case family we used in The Work versus Welfare Trade-off 2013. In that paper, we found that in some states, the welfare benefits package available could be so generous that it could disincentivize work in some cases. One critique of the paper was that not every low-income household qualified for the programs in our benefit package. This is true, and we acknowledged as much in the paper. We even included a scenario where the family only received benefits from a more limited package. However, this Census data shows that cases like the one we examinedare becoming increasingly common. Almost 44 percent of households headed by a single mother participated in three or more means-tested non-cash programs in 2012, compared to only 38.7 percent when the recession ended.  While the point remains that not every low-income household participates in every welfare program, many do participate in multiple programs, and the proportion has continued to increase years after the recession ended.

These are the people most at risk of becoming caught in a “poverty trap,” in which the very programs intended to help them can actually make if more difficult for them to escape poverty. In these cases, people could find that it is not worth it to enter the workforce or increase their earnings because they face very high effective marginal tax rates. For each additional dollar they earned, they would lose almost as much through the loss of benefits and taxes. A study in the National Tax Journal found that a single parent with two children trying to move from the poverty level to 150 percent of the poverty line faced an average effective marginal tax rate of almost 77 percent. Over that range, these people are keeping less than a quarter of each dollar earned. Through these significant work disincentives, our current system inhibits recipients’ ability to eventually earn enough to transition out of these programs and escape poverty for good.

Some of the recent surge in welfare recipients was due to the economic downturn, but the number of beneficiaries has continued to grow years after the recession ended. More families today are participating in multiple programs, and they are more likely to face a poverty trap. These trends reinforce the need to reform our current welfare system because the status quo is clearly not working. Welfare programs do relieve some of the worst forms of material deprivation, but they have proven costly and ineffective.  In some cases they actually make it harder for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Clearly, it is time for a change.