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The big lie about families on welfare: they don't work

Just because someone's applying for welfare doesn't mean she doesn't also have a job.
Just because someone's applying for welfare doesn't mean she doesn't also have a job.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

The debate over public benefits almost always treats "welfare" and "work" as counterparts to each other. There are people who get public benefits — and people who work for their paychecks.

But it turns out a lot of those people overlap: a majority of public benefits go to working families, a new analysis from two Berkeley economists finds. Their work shows that $152 billion in public programs like Medicaid and welfare — 56 percent of overall spending — goes toward supporting low-wage workers.

As the chart shows, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit goes overwhelmingly to working families — they're about three-quarters of enrollees, and they get 81 percent of the $67 billion the program hands out. Working families are 61 percent of the enrollees on public insurance plans Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Two other public programs — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps (SNAP) — don't go as heavily to workers, but workers still account for 27 and 38 percent, respectively, of the money the programs give out.

The Berkeley analysis defines a "working family" as one where at least one person works at least 27 weeks a year for at least 10 hours a week. That does leave open the possibility that some of these families might only be receiving benefits during the time when no one in the family is working. It's also worth noting that the public assistance program that overwhelmingly goes to working families — the Earned Income Tax Credit — is designed specifically for low-income workers.

The Berkeley economists argue that this data should cause Americans to think about welfare in a different way: not as taxpayers subsidizing people who don't want to work, but as taxpayers subsidizing companies that don't want to pay workers enough money to live. It's definitely an illustration that welfare and work go hand in hand as two of the ways people at the bottom of the income distribution cobble together a living.

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