The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘If you’re trying and not succeeding, the welfare system today gives you basically nothing’

A man eats dinner at the Christ's Hands Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry in Harlan, Ky., last fall. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Politics in America broadly divide the poor into two groups: those who struggle for reasons beyond their control and those who remain poor because they haven't tried. The distinction separates the earnest from the lazy, the working class from the welfare queens, the "deserving poor" from those who'd use public assistance as an excuse to avoid getting a job.

The distinction is an old one (here's a particularly precious, old-fashioned definition of the "deserving poor" from what sounds like Charles Dickens' time). But exactly who we're talking about as deserving of help in America has changed with time. And, as a result, our welfare system now no longer primarily serves the poor who are most in need of aid, research suggests.

Robert Moffitt, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, came to this conclusion after analyzing the evolution of the U.S. welfare system over the last 40 years. Politicians are fond of saying that welfare spending in America has ballooned over this time. Researchers often counter that the government has in fact grown less generous with the poor. Moffitt finds that, in a sense, both are true: Spending on welfare programs has expanded, but increasingly, it's not the worst-off who are on the receiving end.

This graph, from a presentation Moffitt recently gave at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America, shows the aggregate growth in real dollars (adjusted for population growth) of the nine largest means-tested programs in the United States: Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (previously Aid to Families with Dependent Children), the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, subsidized housing, school lunch, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, and Head Start:

That looks like a big expansion, right? But the programs that have made up the largest share of that growth aren't geared toward the poorest Americans, those who earn little or no money at all. Supplemental Security Income is only available to the elderly, the blind and the disabled. The Earned Income Tax Credit only benefits families who earn enough to qualify for a tax credit (generally those families making from $10,000 to $20,000 a year benefit the most). Families that don't make enough to owe taxes similarly don't benefit from the Child Tax Credit.

The program that has historically done the most to directly help the poorest of the poor -- regardless of disability, age or tax qualifications -- was Aid to Families with Dependent Children. That program was heavily revised during the 1996 welfare reform law (when it became TANF). In the 10 years after that law was passed, with new work requirements, the number of poor families headed by a single mother who were helped by the program dropped by 63 percent.

As federal support for AFDC plummeted, funding for programs like the EITC, the Child Tax Credit and Supplemental Security Income rose (Moffitt is showing relative trends here in a power-point presentation without a labeled y-axis):

The result? The distinction between who we're effectively helping and who we're not has grown sharper since the 1980s, Moffitt argues. Today, the "deserving" are working, married and have children. The undeserving are single parents, childless adults and anyone who's out of work and so doesn't qualify for tax breaks.

"Single mothers seem to be especially viewed as undeserving," Moffitt says, "as though that’s a choice somehow."

Looking at data Moffitt crunched from the Survey of Income and Program Participation between 1983 and 2004, we can see that welfare spending in the United States rose substantially for married families over that time and fell for single-parent families:

Spending also fell for single-parent families making the least money, while spending rose for those making as much as twice the federal poverty line:

A similar trend has occurred with married-parent families:

Over time, the welfare system's emphasis on work has grown. And Moffitt suggests that since middle- and upper-income mothers increasingly entered the workforce after the 1960s, we've come to expect low-income mothers to do the same (regardless of whether they have available child care or other support).

Moffitt isn't arguing against the value of work in welfare programs. "I would never say that’s a bad thing," he says. "That’s been very rewarding for society, and I think that has generated lots of additional help for people who are able to work." The Earned Income Tax Credit is probably the best example of a program that rewards working parents. "But I think there’s a perception – it's an old perception – that the people who aren’t working, who are down at the bottom, somehow aren’t exercising personal responsibility, they're not trying their best to succeed."

The reality, he says, is that many of them are trying, but our welfare system is only designed to help them if they do succeed. "If you’re trying and not succeeding," Moffitt says, "the welfare system today gives you basically nothing."

It gives you food stamps, worth about $5 a person, a day.

In theory, a welfare system should achieve two goals: It should reward people who are working to get out of poverty, and it should help those with the greatest disadvantages. Right now the country is doing a lot more to achieve one than the other. And the end result is that we appear to have built a system that does the least for the people who are worst off.