The Deserving Poor, the Family, and the U.S. Welfare System


Contrary to the popular view that the U.S. welfare system has been in a contractionary phase after the expansions of the welfare state in the 1960s, welfare spending resumed steady growth after a pause in the 1970s. However, although aggregate spending is higher than ever, there have been redistributions away from non-elderly and nondisabled families to families with older adults and to families with recipients of disability programs; from non-elderly, nondisabled single-parent families to married-parent families; and from the poorest families to those with higher incomes. These redistributions likely reflect long-standing, and perhaps increasing, conceptualizations by U.S. society of which poor are deserving and which are not.

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  1. 1.

    The 16 are the Old-Age Survivors Insurance program (i.e., Social Security retirement), Medicare, UI, Workers Compensation, SSDI, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, AFDC-TANF, the EITC, the CTC, Food Stamps, subsidized housing programs, school food programs, WIC, and Head Start. The one important set of programs that is left out for lack of good data are child care programs.

  2. 2.

    The annualized rates of growth in the three periods are 10 %, 2 %, and 2.6 %, respectively.

  3. 3.

    Spending in the third period also rose relative to gross domestic product (GDP), from 9 % of GDP in 1985 to 12 % in 2007, a significant and nontrivial increase.

  4. 4.

    Part of this growth is a result of increases in medical care prices, which were rising faster than general inflation over this period. These figures deflate spending by a general price index and hence overstate the growth of real medical care utilization.

  5. 5.

    Some of the decline in spending after 1996 has been attributed to the decline of the AFDC-TANF program as well given that many recipients of that program prior to 1996 had been automatically eligible for Food Stamps.

  6. 6.

    The programs include Social Security retirement, SSDI, Workers Compensation, UI, AFDC-TANF, Food Stamps, SSI, subsidized housing, veterans benefits, WIC, General Assistance, Other Welfare, the EITC, and the CTC.

  7. 7.

    Because I modified the price index and a few of the details of their calculations, these figures will not exactly match those in their published study.

  8. 8.

    It would be preferable to define a disabled population independent of benefit receipt, but the questions on disability in the SIPP data are not adequate to do so.

  9. 9.

    The data on cohabitation in the 1983 SIPP are inadequate, so marriage is used to define the first two groups. Families with children are those with children under age 18 in the household.

  10. 10.

    The percentage of single mothers in the income groups did change somewhat over the period. In 1983, the percentage of families in the four groups (of those with private income less than 200 % of the poverty threshold) from lowest to highest were 53 %, 16 %, 16 %, and 14 %, and they had changed to 41 %, 22 %, 21 %, and 16 % by 2004.

  11. 11.

    There are many fewer married-parent families in deep poverty: 20 % in 1983 and 17 % in 2004.

  12. 12.

    Separate tabulations for childless individuals and married childless families show similar, small changes.

  13. 13.

    Some other past research on related topics provides complementary evidence. A literature on “disconnected” families shows a rising fraction of low-income families who have little or no earnings as well as little or no cash welfare (Blank and Kovak 2009; Loprest 2011). Shaefer and Edin (2013) showed an increase in the number of families with incomes less than $2 per day, which is partly a result of these declines in government assistance for the poorest families.


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This article is a revised version of Presidential Address to the Population Association of America, Boston, May 2, 2014. I thank Andrew Cherlin, Kathryn Edin, and other participants of a seminar at the Hopkins Population Center, as well as Sandra Hofferth, Michael Rendall, and other participants of a seminar at the Maryland Population Research Center for comments. Nadia Diamond-Smith and Gwyn Pauley provided excellent research assistance. Financial support from the Russell Sage Foundation is also gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Robert A. Moffitt.

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Moffitt, R.A. The Deserving Poor, the Family, and the U.S. Welfare System. Demography 52, 729–749 (2015).

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  • Welfare
  • Poverty
  • Single mothers