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The Issue

W‌hen President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he said that it ‌was intended to strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” He added, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Five decades and $25 trillion later, the welfare system has failed the poor. Poverty rates remain stagnant, and self-sufficiency languishes.

Total federal, state, and local government spending on over 80 different means-tested welfare programs now reaches over $1 trillion annually. The cost of welfare is unsustainable, and pouring dollars into an ever-increasing number of welfare programs has failed to improve rates of self-sufficiency. It is time to get welfare spending under control and to reform welfare programs to encourage self-reliance and truly improve the well-being of the poor.


Account for Welfare Spending in the President’s Budget. The federal welfare system consists of roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. These programs are scattered among multiple government agencies. The size and cost of the government welfare system as a whole are unknown to most policymakers as well as the American public. Policy should require that the President’s annual budget outline total current welfare spending, as well as 10-year projections.

Turn Welfare into a Work Activation Program. Welfare should not be a one-way handout. Welfare should be based on reciprocal obligations between recipients and taxpayers. Government should most certainly support those who need assistance—and it should expect recipients to engage in constructive activity in exchange for that assistance. Recipients who cannot immediately find a job would be expected to engage in “work activation” consisting of supervised job search, training, and community service. This idea of a quid pro quo between welfare recipients and society has nearly universal support among the public. According to a November 2015 survey by the American Perceptions Initiative, a project of The Heritage Foundation, nearly 90 percent of the public agree that “able-bodied adults that receive cash, food, housing, and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits.” The outcomes were nearly identical across party lines, with 87 percent of Democrats and 94 percent of Republicans agreeing with this statement. Establishing work requirements was the core principle of the welfare reform law enacted in the mid 1990s. That reform led to record drops in welfare dependence and child poverty. Employment among single mothers surged. Despite the harsh impact of the Great Recession, much of the poverty reduction generated by welfare reform remains in effect to this day.

Return Fiscal Responsibility to State Governments. Nearly 90 percent of cash, food, and housing aid to low-income persons comes from the federal government. (This figure does not include Social Security or Medicare.) State governments have incrementally shifted fiscal responsibility for welfare to the federal government for decades. State governments administer many federally funded welfare programs, but because they have no financial “skin in the game,” their administration is generally inefficient. States should gradually assume greater revenue responsibility for welfare programs; that is, they should pay for and administer the programs with state resources. A first step would be to gradually return fiscal responsibility for all subsidized housing programs to the states.

Promote Marriage as America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty. The breakdown of marriage is one of the greatest drivers of child poverty. Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. In contrast, children in single-parent homes are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to their peers in homes with both parents. Moreover, children raised outside a biological family arrangement are at greater risk of lower educational attainment, delinquency, non-marital pregnancy and childbearing, and other negative consequences. Tragically, more than 40 percent of all children today are born outside marriage each year, whereas in the 1960s, less than 10 percent of children were born to single women each year. Yet, government practices and policies undermine marriage. Of the nearly $400 billion in annual federal and state welfare funding spent on low-income families with children, three-quarters goes to those led by single parents (mostly mothers). Moreover, the incentive structure of many federal welfare programs discourages single mothers from marrying the employed fathers of their children. Discouraging men and women from enjoying the financial and emotional supports of marriage in order to continue receiving public assistance harms adults and their children—who are, in turn, likely to continue the cycle of poverty for another generation. Policymakers should eliminate the penalties for marriage in the welfare system. Additionally, leaders at every level of government should look for ways to teach young men and women, particularly in low-income communities, about the importance of marriage in reducing poverty and dramatically improving children’s well-being.

Facts and Figures

FACT: In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it”; since then, means-tested welfare spending has nearly tripled after adjusting for inflation.

  • Adjusting for inflation, the nation spends 12 times more on means-tested welfare spending than it did when the War on Poverty began.
  • In fact, means-tested welfare is the fastest-growing area of government spending.

FACT: The idea of reforming welfare to become a work activation program for able-bodied adults enjoys broad public support.

  • Eighty-seven percent of Democrats and 94 percent of Republicans agree that “able-bodied adults that receive cash, food, housing, and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits.”
  • The mid 1990s welfare reform law, which established work requirements in welfare, decreased welfare dependence and child poverty while increasing employment amongst single mothers.

FACT: Children in single-parent homes are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to their peers in married-parent homes.

  • In 1964, only 7 percent of births in America were outside marriage. Today, this number has climbed to more than 40 percent.
  • Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent, and children raised by married parents are more likely to avoid risks that would hinder their ability to thrive.
  • Marriage is one of the top factors in promoting human happiness; the decline in marriage rates over the past several decades should be of utmost concern to policymakers.

Selected Additional Resources

Robert Rector, “Examining the Means-Tested Welfare State: 79 Programs and $927 Billion in Annual Spending,” testimony before the Committee on the Budget, U.S. House of Representatives, May 3, 2012.

Robert Rector, “How Welfare Undermines Marriage and What to Do About It,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4302, November 17, 2014.

Robert Rector, “Poverty and the Social Welfare State in the United States and Other Nations,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3057, September 16, 2015.

Robert Rector, “Reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit to End Waste, Fraud, and Abuse and Strengthen Marriage,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3162, November 16, 2016.

Robert Rector, “Work Requirements in Medicaid Won’t Work. Here’s a Serious Alternative,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, March 19, 2017.

Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “Five Myths About Welfare and Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3176, December 15, 2016.

Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “Setting Priorities for Welfare Reform,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4520, February 24, 2016.

Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “The War on Poverty After 50 Years,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2955, September 15, 2014.

Robert Rector, Rachel Sheffield, and Kevin D. Dayaratna, “Maine Food Stamp Work Requirement Cuts Non-Parent Caseload by 80 percent,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3091, February 8, 2016.