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The Growth in Public Assistance in America

Sep 17, 2014

Recently, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau released a new report on the state of public assistance in America showing detail by state and metropolitan area (pdf). Public assistance is defined fairly narrowly in this report as:


“Public assistance income provides cash payments to poor families or individuals and includes Temporary Assistance to Need Families (TANF) and General Assistance (GA). TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1997 through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, often referred to as ‘welfare reform.’ Unlike AFDC benefits, TANF benefits are time-limited, require most adult recipients to work, and give states increased flexibility in program design. GA, also known as General Relief in some areas, usually refers to programs that provide income support to adults without dependents.”




The report found that in 2012 there were 3.3 million households on public assistance, or 2.9 percent of all households. As shown in Figure 1, the states with the highest levels of public assistance, over 4 percent of households, were, not surprisingly, in the west (Alaska, California, Oregon, and Washington) and in the northeast (Maine and Vermont). The states with the lowest levels of public assistance, less than 2 percent of households, were in the south (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas) and in the northern plains (North Dakota and Wyoming).


Figure 1 Percentage of Households Receiving Public Assistance in the Past 12 Months by State and Puerto Rico 2012.JPG


The report also found that between 2000 and 2012 there were far more states had increases in the proportion of households on public assistance (26) than states that saw a decrease (7). As shown in Figure 3, the states with increase are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. The state with a decrease are Hawaii, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Texas.


Figure 3 Change in the Percentage of Households Receiving Public Assistance in the Past 12 Months by State 2000 to 2012.JPG


These are interesting results for two reasons. First, the growth in public assistance between 2000 and 2012 represent two years of relative prosperity and were not clouded by one of the end points being in a recession year. Second, the states with the highest proportion of households are in the west and northeast which are areas of the country known for generous public assistance. These two points suggest that public assistance has become more generous over this time-period as a matter of changes to public policy.



J. Scott Moody

Scott has nearly 20 years of experience as a public policy economist. He is the author, co-author and editor of over 180 studies and books. His professional experience also includes positions at the American Conservative Union Foundation, Granite Institute, Federalism In Action, Maine Heritage Policy Center, Tax Foundation, and Heritage Foundation.


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