As suggested by its title, this report focuses on welfare “dependence” as well as welfare “recipiency.” While recipiency can be defined fairly easily, based on the presence of benefits from AFDC/TANF, FSP/SNAP, or SSI, dependence is a more complex concept. Welfare dependence, like poverty, is a continuum, with variations in degree and in duration. Families may be more or less dependent if larger or smaller shares of their total resources are derived from welfare programs. The amount of time over which a family depends on welfare might also be considered in assessing its degree of dependence. Nevertheless, a summary measure of dependence to be used as an indicator for policy purposes must have some fixed parameters that allow one to determine which families should be counted as dependent, just as the poverty line defines who is poor under the official standard. The definition of dependence proposed by the Advisory Board for this purpose is as follows: A family is dependent on welfare if more than 50 percent of its total income in a one-year period comes from AFDC/TANF, FSP/SNAP, and/or SSI, and this welfare income is not associated with work activities. In following the Board’s proposal, we adopt the following definition of welfare dependence among individuals in families4 for use in this report:
Welfare dependence is the proportion of all individuals in families that receive more than half of their total family income in one year from TANF, SNAP, and/or SSI.
No definition of welfare dependence is without its limitations. The Advisory Board recognized that no
single measure could capture fully all aspects of dependence and that their proposed measure should be
examined in concert with other indicators of well-being. While the Board’s proposal would count
unsubsidized and subsidized employment and work required to obtain benefits as work activities, existing
data sources do not permit distinguishing between welfare income associated with work activities and
non-work-related welfare benefits. As a result, the data shown in this report may overstate the incidence
of dependence on these three programs.5 In FY 2009, 42.4 percent of welfare recipients were working or
participating in work related activities compared to 7 percent in 1992.6
Also, any definition of dependence represents an arbitrary choice of a percentage of income from welfare
beyond which families will be considered dependent. But using a single point – in this case 50 percent –
yields a relatively straightforward measure that can be tracked easily over time, and is likely to be
associated with any large changes in total dependence, however defined.
Note: Recipiency is defined as living in a family with receipt of any amount of AFDC/TANF, SSI or SNAP during the year.
Dependency is defined as having more than 50 percent of annual income from AFDC/TANF, SSI and/or SNAP. Dependency
rates would be lower if adjusted to exclude welfare assistance associated with working.
Source: Unpublished tabulations from the Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 1994-2009,
analyzed using the TRIM3 microsimulation model.
Welfare recipiency is defined as living in a family with receipt of any amount of AFDC/TANF, FSP/SNAP,
or SSI during the year. The welfare recipiency rate, as used in this report, refers to the number of
individuals in families that received benefits from any one of the three aforementioned programs during
the year as a percent of the population.
Dependency and recipiency rates follow fairly similar trends and even before the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 was passed, welfare recipiency and dependency were both in decline. The overall drop in the recipiency rates during the 1990s is consistent with low unemployment and lower poverty rates. The subsequent rise in the welfare program recipiency rate after 2000 however is associated more with increases in SSI and SNAP receipt than TANF, where caseloads continued a downward trend through 2008 (see Table TANF 1).
The “Great Recession,” that officially began in late 2007 and lasted through mid 2009, exacerbated an upward trend in recipiency rates that began after 2000. As shown in Figure SUM 1, the dependency rate fell from 5.9 percent in 1993 to a low of 3.0 percent in 2000, and the recipiency rate declined from 17.2 percent in 1994 to a low of 12.5 percent in 2000. Yet, by 2009, these rates had risen to 4.6 percent for dependence and 19.9 percent for recipiency.
To a significant extent, this trend correlated with worsening economic conditions. In particular, SNAP is designed to respond to such changes, automatically expanding to meet increased need when the economy is in recession with benefits that flow to communities, states, or regions of the country that face rising unemployment or poverty. The increase in SNAP recipiency between 2005 and 2009 reflects this responsiveness, as well as success in reaching a higher proportion of eligible people (see Figure IND 4). The program’s significance to these households is underscored by the fact that 17 percent of SNAP households had no other income in 2009.7
It is important to note that more than half of those that rely on SNAP are children, elderly, or disabled.8 SNAP is also an important support for working families—62 percent of SNAP recipients are in families with labor force participants. Furthermore, SNAP receipt does not necessarily imply long term dependency, as over 60 percent of SNAP entrants remain on the program for a year or less. The Congressional Budget Office’s latest projections show that once the economy fully recovers, SNAP is expected to return to pre-recession levels as a share of the gross domestic product.
In 2009, as in previous years, general patterns in welfare receipt are apparent. Recipiency and dependency rates are higher for Non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics of any race than they are for Non-Hispanic Whites, as shown in Table SUM 1. These rates are also higher for young children than they are for adults, and they are higher for individuals in female-headed families than they are for those in married-couple families. However, of note are the rising recipiency rates for all demographic categories over a relatively short period of time, 2007 – 2009, and the magnitude of the increase. For example, for those living in female-headed families, the recipiency rate increased from 45.0 percent in 2007 to 50.4 percent in 2009, a 5.4 percentage point increase. And Hispanics of any race show an 8.3 percentage point increase in recipiency between 2007 and 2009. Adults 65 and older experienced smaller increases in welfare recipiency than did other demographic groups. Their recipiency rate increased 0.7 percentage points, from 10.6 percent to 11.3 percent over the 2007 and 2009 period.
Another factor affecting dependence is the time period observed. The summary measures shown in Figure SUM 1 and Table SUM 1 focus on recipiency and dependency rates measured on an annual, cross-sectional basis. Longitudinal measures of AFDC/TANF receipt (both annual and monthly) show that program spells are typically short and long-term recipiency is rare, see Chapter II. Indicator 9, for example, shows that among individuals receiving TANF at some point over a ten-year period ending in 2008, 8.0 percent received some AFDC/TANF during six or more years. Another fifth (20.5 percent) were recipients in three to five years, and more than two-thirds (71.5 percent) received AFDC/TANF in only one or two years during this period.
4 The unit of analysis for most of the statistics in this report is “individuals” rather than families or households. Appendix D provides more information on the use of individuals as the unit of analysis.
5 While this report defines dependency in relation to TANF, SNAP and SSI, there are other forms of means-tested assistance that could be considered under other definitions.
6 Office of Family Assistance, an office of the Administration for Children and Families, Characteristics and Financial Circumstances of TANF Recipients, Fiscal Year 2009, Table 28. This 42.4 percent includes subsidized employment and work preparation activities (including subsidized jobs, on-the-job training, work experience or community services). The earnings of those in unsubsidized employment would be correctly captured as income from work in national surveys. Any welfare benefits associated with work experience, community service programs or other work activities, however, would be counted as income from welfare in most national surveys, a classification incompatible with the Advisory Board’s proposed definition.
7 USDA-Food and Nutrition Service, Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2009.
8 USDA-Food and Nutrition Service, Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2009.