The Census Bureau reported yesterday that roughly one of every two households in America gets government benefits of some kind, ranging from Social Security, welfare, Medicaid and food stamps to school lunches.
The bureau said 39 million of 83.6 million nonfarm households in the nation -- 47 percent -- received government benefits in a survey covering the first quarter of 1984. Many households received more than one benefit.
The survey illustrates how deeply the public benefit programs that were started in the New Deal have become embedded in American society.
Social Security, which is not distributed according to need, was the most widely received benefit, going to 23.5 million households. Medicare went to 20.5 million.
Medicaid was next at 7.6 million, followed by food stamps (6.5 million households), free or reduced-price school meals (5.9 million), Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and other cash welfare payments (3.9 million households), public or subsidized rental housing (3.6 million), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the aged, blind and disabled (2.9 million) and unemployment compensation (2.7 million).
Looking at programs designed to help only the poor and near-poor -- AFDC, SSI, subsidized housing, Medicaid, food assistance and a few smaller ones -- the bureau found that about one household in five received one or more benefits based on need.
But the proportion was far higher among certain subgroups of the population: 47 percent of all black households, 41 percent of all Hispanic, 62 percent of all female-headed families with children under 18, 80 percent of all such families who are black.
One surprise was that even among households with more than $6,000 a month income, there were 14,000 households receiving food stamps, which are based on need, 44,000 receiving Medicaid, also based on need, and 40,000 free or reduced-price school meals.
Officials said, however, that this finding probably could be explained in part by tiny imprecisions of extrapolation and interpretation resulting from the small size of the sample (20,000 households); "response error"; the fact that some people received benefits in one month when unemployed, then got a job and increased earnings substantially, and the fact that some households include one low-income relative who is a beneficiary.
Although the survey showed 47 percent of all households receiving one or more benefits, officials said the figure translated into only about 31 percent of all people in the United States because many households consist of a single retired person on Social Security, while some households without benefits consist of large families with several people.