Why Welfare Doesn’t Work: And What We Should Do Instead

Written by: Leah Hamilton, MSW, PhD

Democrats and Republicans don’t see eye to eye very often, but they can safely agree on one point: welfare doesn’t work. Liberals are concerned that an ever-shrinking social safety net reaches fewer and fewer families in need. Republicans worry that welfare benefits create dependence. They are both right.

The primary cash assistance program in the United States, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, served 68% of low-income families in 1996. Today, only 23% of poor families receive assistance. This change has been largely brought about by the imposition of five-year lifetime limits (states are allowed to set lower limits) and stricter eligibility criteria. Welfare caseload reductions have been solidly linked to the rise of deep poverty in America, family strain and increased foster care placements. 1.46 million US households (including 2.8 million children) now live on less than $2 per person, per day (the World Bank’s measurement of extreme poverty).

Meanwhile, welfare eligibility rules designed to encourage independence have achieved the opposite effect. For example, though many states impose strict work requirements, states which loosen these rules actually see recipients move to higher wage, higher benefit work, presumably because they have the breathing room to search for a good job rather than take the first one that comes along. Similarly, in states with strict limitations on recipient assets, poor families are less likely to own a car, making it nearly impossible to maintain employment in areas without public transportation. Even worse, some researchers are discovering a “cliff effect” in which welfare recipients immediately lose all benefits (including child care assistance) after a small increase in income. As a result, many parents turn down promotional opportunities because they would be ultimately worse off financially. Any parent would make the same decision if it meant the ability to feed their children and afford quality childcare.

We must redesign this entire system. In the most prosperous nation in the world, it is ludicrous that children are growing up in the kind of deprivation we normally associate with developing countries. Simultaneously, we must ensure that no one is discouraged from growing their income or assets. One potential solution is a universal basic income, which would provide an annual benefit to every citizen. However, this idea comes with a hefty price tag and would either increase our national deficit or increase the marginal tax rate, both of which might be political non-starters. The simpler solution is a Negative Income Tax (NIT) which is potentially cheaper than our current poverty alleviation efforts. An NIT is a refundable tax credit which brings every household to the federal poverty level. The most effective way to do this is to decrease the credit slowly (for example, a $0.50 reduction for each $1.00 increase in earned income) so that there is never a penalty for hard work.

Researchers at the University of Michigan calculated what this might look like in practice. If a family had no income, their tax credit would be 100% of the poverty line ($20,780 for a family of three). If the family’s earned income increased to half the poverty line ($10,390), their tax credit would decrease to $15,585. The credit would phase out completely once the family’s income reached twice the poverty level ($41,560). This plan would cost roughly $219 billion per year and could be almost completely paid for by replacing most or all of our current poverty programs.

With this one simple policy, we can achieve many goals of both the left and right. Poverty would be eliminated overnight. Work disincentives would be removed. American bureaucracy would be significantly reduced. Families would be free to make financial decisions without government intrusion. And in the long run, we would save money. Childhood poverty alone costs the US $1.03 trillion (yes, trillion) per year. In the 21st century, eradicating poverty isn’t complicated. We’re just going about it in the worst possible way.

About the author:

Leah Hamilton, MSW, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Appalachian State University. She received a BSW from Metropolitan State University of Denver, an MSW from the University of Denver and a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Arkansas. She served as a Foster Care Case Worker and trainer for five years in Denver, Colorado. Dr. Hamilton’s research interests include poverty, economic justice, and social policy.

About Guest Contributor

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The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.


  • The level of poverty in America is getting to a terrifying rate. There are fixes for it and it’s simple…
    1. Replace welfare with BI. I mean all of it. Food stamps, rent assistance, and insurance. Make the BI high enough people can live while they are up dating their skills for work. I put in BI not UBI because people who are wealthy don’t need it.

    2. Price control. I know this is a slippery slope. Have rent set for less that 10% of people’s income. Put price caps on things like food, electric, and gas.

    3. Communal apartments. These would be for people who are homeless and want to get their lives together. And for people who can’t afford so-called affordable apartments.

  • Steve Richardson

    Thanks for the post, Prof. Hamilton. I agree wholeheartedly – and offer for your consideration my own plan for a NIT-type basic income solution: https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bis.2013.8.issue-1/bis-2013-0001/bis-2013-0001.xml?format=INT

  • Steve Richardson

    Thanks for the post, Prof. Hamilton. I agree wholeheartedly – and offer for your consideration my own plan for a NIT-type basic income solution – Entitlement Reform: From Tangled Web to Safety Net at https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bis.2013.8.issue-1/bis-2013-0001/bis-2013-0001.xml?format=INT

  • Steve Richardson

    Thanks for the post, Prof. Hamilton. I agree wholeheartedly – and offer for your consideration my own plan for a NIT-type basic income solution – Entitlement Reform: From Tangled Web to Safety Net in Basic Income Studies, August 2013.

  • DH Fabian

    Welfare can work, it there is a legitimate welfare system. We only had one for a short time, many years ago. It provided enough to enable people to keep their families together, housed and fed, and to move forward as opportunities came along. (You can’t get a job once you no longer have a home address, phone, etc. You’re just out.) Remember that over 80% of welfare recipients relied on welfare aid short-term, for reasons that shouldn’t be hard to figure out. People want more in life than what is possible when on welfare. Of course, actual welfare aid ended back in the 1990s. We know that not everyone can work, and that there aren’t jobs for all, and today’s Americans decided that this isn’t their problem. We abandoned all concept of “the common good,” and I think the ugly consequences are obvious.

  • DH Branski

    Welfare aid did work, during the few years that we had a legitimate, non-punitive system. In real life, not everyone can work (health, etc.) and there simply aren’t jobs available for all. When we did have a comparatively comprehensive system, recipients were provided with enough aid to keep their families together, housed and fed, and to move forward when opportunities came along. Some 80% of recipients were short-term, by choice. The reasons are easy to figure out: People want more (both materially, and more out of life) than the bare minimum. “Job security” is a thing of the past, and once you no longer have a home address, phone, etc, you can’t get a job. You’re out. Actual welfare aid ended back in the 1990s, and we’re living with the ugly consequences.

  • Scooter Hoffman

    I think universal income is dumb. Paying people to be non productive is a definite road to ruins. People are like cats. If you feed a cat, he will sit around and not hunt but wait for you to open up the next can of food. Paying people to sit at home will make a new generation of people “addicted” to social welfare programs. People need incentive to work and giving them money to just sit around definitely doesn’t do that. Welfare of any type shouldn’t be guaranteed. It should be limited and people should be encouraged to find work. We have spent over 25,000,000,000,000 dollars (25 trillion) on social welfare programs and we have created a society of people looking for their check. Lest I remind you we are 21 trillion in debt? Unfortunately poverty will never go away. I think that new standards of subsistence need to be determined. As as communal living for poor where they share a home and share in expenses and labor. The American dream is not the post WWII dream of living comfortably in your home with a pension. The new reality is escaping poverty which can be done by altering concepts of how people should live. These people could live in communal housing with food, etc provided but they would have to communally take care of their surroundings or they would be out. They could have food, shelter, etc but they would be encouraged to want more and thus work to achieve it. Socialism never works long term. It always has failed. Yet people keep trying it over and over again expecting a different result. I believe that is the definition of insanity.

    • Andre Coelho

      Dear Scooter Hoffman,

      Cutting down to the real question, which would be: what would YOU do if your income was taken care of?

      Sit around in your sofa, like a cat, or do something meaningful with your life, while helping to sustain the community you live in?

      The choice is entirely up to you/us.

      Best regards,

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