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What do People do with Means-Tested Assistance ?

Marc To Market's picture


There is a ideological caricature of Americans who are aided by public assistance.  There claims of fraud and waste are rampant, but the actual evidence is sorely lacking.  It is not that there is no fraud or waste, but that it is grossly exaggerated.  The caricature tends to be part of a political agenda that wants to reduce the assistance.

This Great Graphic was posted on Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann. It shows the consumption patterns of those receiving assistance (red) and those that do not (blue).  The data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Families receiving assistance spend about half as much as families drawing on assistance.  They spend a third less on food, 50% less on housing and 60% less on entertainment.   That said, the data does not capture the non-cash assistance that some households receive.

Some research (see Henry Farrell's review of a new study on the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog) indicates that people tend to be more supportive of transfer payments and assistance if they believed the recipients are in genuine need and not gaming the system.  We suspect, then, that if there was a greater understanding of what the assistance is being spent on, there may be less political resistance to it.

Of course, it is not simply a marketing challenge.  It is ultimately a political question.   How should the social product be divided ?  What do social classes owe each other?  In that debate, those receiving assistance are often demonized for political and ideological reasons that often bear little relation to the facts.   


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Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:08 | 4264162 Trickman
Trickman's picture

Sorry, but what is the basis for this chart?

Families not receiving assistance will obviously have higher incomes (and therefore not qualify for assistance) while families receiving assistance will obviously have lower incomes. Looking at this on a percentage basis, I see the following:

Food   14% to 21%

Housing 34% to 39%

Apparel 2% to 4%

Transport 17% to 17%

Healthcare 6% to 3%

Entertainment 5% to 4%

Insurance 14% to 6%

Other 8% to 6%

You're telling me, that an average family on assistance is paying ~$1,000 per month for housing? My brother, his wife, and his child have an apartment that costs them $500/month. I'm in a 4 bedroom home with 2500 sq feet and a pool and my monthly cost is $1,100 including property taxes and homeowners insurance. (I'm within 15 miles of a major urban center). I live in a nice house and have a strong income.

Entertainment eats up .5% less of the 'supported' income than the unsupported income. If that supported income includes the government assistance then yes, that pisses me off. That means that of their 'earned' income, they are spending a higher percentage of that on 'entertainment' than someone not being supported. Their "extra" income should be going into education or training or something to escape the 'support' structure rather than higher-than-otherwise entertainment spending.

And where are they skrimping relative to income? Insurance and healthcare. So they're making insurance more expensive for the rest of us by increasing our costs through uninsured motorist coverages, skipped healthcare bills, while putting themselves into an even more precarious position by taking on addl risk.

Redistribute their income based upon the non-assistance rates and you get these monthly figures:

Food: $365 

Housing: $875

Apparel: $62

Transport: $430

Healthcare: $141

Entertainment: $131

Insurance: $349

Other: $193

The only significant reductions are to food and to housing. Even so, housing costs less than $875 are pretty reasonable across most of the country. Drop your housing cost to $700 and you can continue to eat at $540/month. (Who spends $100/week on food? My family cost is ~$60/week, and we eat plenty of fresh vegetables, beef, and chicken - my lunch is generally PB&J at an average cost of ~50 cents per sandwich because I'd rather spend the extra $5/day on more enjoyable stuff).

I'm all for a reasonable social safety net so that people can bounce back. But we don't have that. We have a support system that does not help people bounce back, it simply lets them maintain and gives them no real reason to do otherwise. The system's effective marginal tax rates completely destroy any incentive for a better job. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations on my blog, linked below for any interested, even throwing a bone to the 'assistance' people by providing an alternative society support structure that generally maintains the current levels of assistance while not completely destroying the marginal benefit of additional labor. Now, neither my suggestion nor the current system are functional long-term due to our govt debt issues, but I'm atleast providing an alternative to the current.


Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:51 | 4263859 Stuck on Zero
Stuck on Zero's picture

Another pile of poo.  When 50%-70% of a those receiving benefits had their children out of wedlock I'd say that there is gaming of the system going on.  The government choses to pay more to those who cheat and they do.  Having children out of wedlock is entirely voluntary.


Fri, 12/20/2013 - 14:15 | 4264539 Tall Tom
Tall Tom's picture

Having children out of wedlock is entirely voluntary.


Not really. Of course there is a fix for this. If a man sires another child, other than by the first woman that he sired a child with, then he is sentenced to Death. The pregnant woman, with who he cheated with, is also sentenced to death while carrying the unborn bastard. Of course the bastard child dies. Nobody has to care for it.


If the woman sires another child other than that by her first man, she shall be put to death. DNA Testing of all children shall be mandatory to demonstrate origination. Her bastard child is also put to death...unless someone else takes responsibility to raise it. Her other children are to be raised by their Natural Father.


Divorce shall be made illegal except in cases of Adultery where the offender is sentenced to Death. Till Death do you part. Marriage begins at the point of a Child Born live.


I like the way that the Bible approaches this topic.  The Wages of sin...ALL Death.


The people whom do not like this are heathen socialists whom do not believe in God, thus, they do not believe in Morality as the only Law is Survival of the Fittest. There is no Right or Wrong in the real atheist perspective.


Thus the problem is a result of Godless Heathen. They wish to practice promiscuity. It is evidential that many have and do by the content of their posts.


Then they are amongst the first to condemn the Welfare Queen? I just love the irrational hypocrisy on this website.


Just ask how many Welfare Queens attend Church. You will get your answer.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:45 | 4263840 Lordflin
Lordflin's picture

I had ancestor who had 24 children, all of whom he was able to support...

Current employment percentages are not that far removed from historical, the difference being that both men and women are in the work force... most men are unable to support a family on their income alone... And I do understand that flat screen TVs were not in vogue 100 years ago, but for those of you who wish to counter with that argument, rest assured they are falling out of favor with the masses once again, most of whom are struggling to put food on the table.

Access to employment that pays a sustainable wage is beyond the reach of a large portion of the population. Why? The means of production are far greater now than ever before, theoretically folks should be doing better than ever...

The answer lays in the welfare given to the rich, as most of you know, that takes the form of legalized theft. The fact that an increasing number of families are depending on subsidies, or the fact that system is being gamed is not the issue... other than, as hush money, as it has the effect of sustaining the legalized theft.

To place the focus here is to ignore the real enemy.

So long as cheap money is available distributions will continue to be made to both ends of the spectrum at the expense of those caught in the middle. But it is the banking, financial, political classes, and big corporations that have/are rigging the system.

The poor are merely a distraction....

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:43 | 4263829 ThirdCoastSurfer
ThirdCoastSurfer's picture

Way beyond the fisical support, there are literally thousands of liberal charities set up to address this disparity. 

These organizations are themselves often supported mainly by tax dollars but, in addition to that, they are almost all tax free and tax deductible. Tax supported, tax free and tax deductible. 

And what do taxpayers get in return?  I dare you to go to a site like charitynavigator, locate the 990 tax filing on your favorite organiztion and determine for yourself how much actual aid makes it to those it is chartered to assist. 

I would hasten to add that amounts sent to other orgaizations do not count,  along with amounts paid for consult services unless you can verify that these consultants are not family members or the like. Also, based on the size of the organization, how do the salaries and benefits match up to the locality they serve? Does the executive director of a charity with $5 million in revenues deserve 20% more in salary than the local police captain or batallion commander of the fire station?

Maybe we wouldn't have to debate means testing if we first examined the role of charitable organizations and held them to some reasonably objective standard of due care.   

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:41 | 4263770 DR
DR's picture

Everyone games the system! Poor people for benefits, middle class for tax credits, business for tax writeoffs and the rich with their offshore accounts.


I've lived in the spectrum from a trailer park to an uppermiddle class neighborhood and there are givers and takers in all ranks of life...


But ask yourself, would you better be poor or rich?

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:26 | 4263763 Big Johnson
Big Johnson's picture

Fuck off!... Get a fuckin job and stop fuckin without a condom.... This should save the tax base approx 2B per year

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 10:59 | 4263682 MrPalladium
MrPalladium's picture

The problem is the now exponential growth in the number of people needing assistance. Poining out that some may actually need assistance is beside the point. The broad point is that this nation cannot afford so many who depend opon the shrinking number who actually pay taxes into the system. Letting millions of third world people with IQ's below 100 flood into the United States is the problem. Perhaps the United States must devolve down to the level of third world basket case before a large mass of resourceful people shed the secular religion of human equality and rebel in favor of secession and independence. It is welfare for the working age population coupled with standardless immigration and the disgenic effects of paying more benefits for each low IQ birth that will ultimately bankrupt the U.S.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 10:51 | 4263622 GreatUncle
GreatUncle's picture

Should be what should they have done with it?

Go on, show me the one thing the person did with their assistance?

Learn to fish? NO Learn to make bread? NO Maybe how to repair a car? NO Learn anything new NO NO NO!!!!

The assistance is not the issue then, it's how you measure what you got for it! That is where the system has to get a grip and does nothing.To be honest the system doesnt care it gets to say it cares because it handed somebody an amount of money. THAT'S NICE Person then buys heroin, OD's, and dies. NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM. Buy a gun if you want, commit armed robbery, somebody else gets shot same thing. NOTINHG TO DO WITH THEM.

Need to ask those being provided assistance what they did with the money and receipts might be a good idea.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 10:14 | 4263526 Longing for the...
Longing for the old America's picture

Marc to Market : AKA Jesse Jackson, AKA Al Sharpton

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 19:22 | 4262134 Czar of Defenes...
Czar of Defenestration's picture

M2M...such a "critic" to Guinny about "evidence"...when all YOU offer is a chart from


Pardon.  *taking a deep breath*


Anecdotal or not, I've seen FAR too many societal parasites buying lobster and steaks with EBT cards, yapping on one of their umpteen ObamaPhones, before they hop into their cozy SUV.  When it wasn't lobster, it was potato chips, gravy and soda pop...BY THE (12 to a) BOX.


OR: at least admit YOU'RE part of the parasitical problem as well.

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 19:07 | 4262127 ebailey5
ebailey5's picture

I spent thirty five years providing medical care to the the public assistance demographic.  Sad to say most of the people will never leave the demographic and to change the circumstances of their support would be akin to failing to feed your pet.  The analogy holds because our state and federal governments have created this status and class either by misplaced good intentions or nefariously to buy votes and political loyalty. Most of the folks were not into gaming the system because they would never be able to figure out how, and why bother? the pols are always falling all over themselves to cater to the "disadvantaged".  What would it take to change the system and reorder priorites to institute welfare to work?  Beats the hell out of me, last time we tried it worked for awhile then we elected Obozo who seems to think the Food Stamp, Medicaid, Unemployment Comp groups needed some serious fertilization.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 12:28 | 4264011 DR
DR's picture

So your income was derived from services to poor people payed by the government? Why are you complaining about the hand that feeds you?



Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:06 | 4264147 ebailey5
ebailey5's picture

I presume that you are asking me a question, i.e. "why are you complaining about the hand that feeds you?".  An accurate reading of my comment, I think, shows no complaint but an observation based on actual, real-life experience with the subject matter of the thread.  I chose how I would structure my practice and provided an excellent service and value for the compensation I received.  From my perspective there were three satisfied parties to my work so no compliant.  BTW, payed=paid and you had an inappropriate tense shift in your subordinate clause--I hope you pay better attention to detail in your fledgling medical career.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:39 | 4264306 jballz
jballz's picture


No one likes a grammar nazi.



Fri, 12/20/2013 - 10:38 | 4263612 snodgrass
snodgrass's picture

Buying people's votes is far down the line of reasons. The real reason was to force the Govt. into borrowing more money so the bankers could earn more interest.

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 18:53 | 4262099 TrustbutVerify
TrustbutVerify's picture

I think its hard to quantify.  But I had a business a while back that was garment manufacturing related.  I paid a good bit more than minimum wage at one point had 80 employees.  Depending on the work flow they often made more than I did.  Being the garment business things weren't easy, but it was obvious how many of my employees were on assistance and that eligibility was based on a certain maximum hours of work they could put in and still get that assistance. Apparently, the total hours had to be less than 40 because often I'd go out into the plant and half the workers would have left halfway thru friday. We've got work available out the wazoo and employees simply leave to keep the government check coming.  

They would sacrifice $2-$3 in actual work pay for every $1 in entitlement money, maybe more.   

I've got hundreds of similar stories I could tell.   

So I sold my plant and after I did I went to visit some garment people in El Paso.  At one point, In conversation, they pointed across the river (Rio Grande, I think) toward Mexico and said  "those people WANT to work."  


Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:36 | 4264288 jballz
jballz's picture

If Mexicans WANT to work so much, why does Mexico look like nobody has picked up a broom or a mop since Panho Villa had his ass beat home?

Second why are they all on welfare from the day they get here til the day their anchor babies run for congress?

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 14:28 | 4264591 RafterManFMJ
RafterManFMJ's picture

Ooooo! Now dat's rayciss!

I ben in Mexico and dey all wanna work but the sun on the head make the brain sleepy so they sleep until cool of night den can't not work as donkey ate all da candles.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:48 | 4263813 Things that go bump
Things that go bump's picture

Look, years ago I worked with a young woman with 2 young kids whose marriage fell apart and her husband left. She was having a good deal of difficulty making ends meet (secretaries didn't really make a living wage, probably still don't, but they've given them a fancier title). Everybody knew she was struggling. She was proud and frugal, but her ex left her with the kids and the bills, took the car and wasn't paying her any child support. Sometimes shit happens through no fault of your own. Sometimes you just hit a bad patch. It can happen to anyone. When her performance review came up her boss got her extra on her raise hoping to ease things for her a bit. That good deed (and I would be surprised if it was even $40.00 a week) ended up costing her $70.00 a week over and above the raise in loss of babysitting subsidy, and she was just in despair. Her boss was quite upset when I told him that, as she had been with him for years. He was very fond of her and was only trying to help her out. I understand that you would have preferred your employees to work that extra 3-4 hours when you had work available, but if it wasn't consistently available it might have meant they would lose some or all of the benefits for the whole month and have trouble feeding their kids or paying daycare or keeping the power and heat turned on or keeping a roof over their heads. The government isn't flexible about such things. 

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 18:44 | 4262075 rorik
rorik's picture

Talking with a local police officer yesterday about the spiral of our countries morals, etc. He said that most of the people whom he arrests at the local casinos for drugs, drunkeness, assault, etc, have in their possession the "cash advance" EBT cards that simply need to be swiped for a cash advance. You don't need to buy "food" first. Sometimes they have several of them.

According to him, Costco is starting to accept them. Can't wait to see those lines.... `cuz that's what Costco needs - longer lines.

I don't have a problem giving people temporary financial aid to get back on their feet. What I do have a problem with, is financing a "lifestyle" that those people can't afford on their own. If the taxpayers are going to buy your food and shelter, show a little courtesy and respect by not wasting the gift.

Basic groceries are fine, but when Safeway, Fred Meyer and other large chains are accepting EBT cards at the franchised Starbucks for $5 dessert drinks - that crap needs to stop.


Thu, 12/19/2013 - 18:06 | 4261971 LMAOLORI
LMAOLORI's picture


"What do People do with Means-Tested Assistance ?"


Strip clubs



just to name a few


Shocking interview: Welfare recipient admits sitting at home, smoking weed, waiting for govt. money

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 15:04 | 4261379 Godisanhftbot
Godisanhftbot's picture

ps the current medicaid expansion rules are kind of nuts.

Guinny_Ire , I have no 1st hand knowledge but I'm sure you're 100% correct.  In the ghetto ,  ghetting over is a lifestyle.


Thu, 12/19/2013 - 18:22 | 4262025 steelhead23
steelhead23's picture

In America, getting over is a life style.

Look, we all work for money.  If we get a bunch of money for a little work, we revel in our brilliance.  If we work hard for too little, we feel stupid and embarassed.  The trader that brags "I got a ten-bagger," is the functional equivalent of a welfare queen who games the system.  That is, both provide little benefit to the larger society, yet feel quite comfortable sucking its teat.  I feel certain that comment will draw an avalanche of down arrows - but you know I'm right.  Looking down your noses at the poor says much more about you than it does them.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:08 | 4264158 jballz
jballz's picture

Fuck the poor.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 14:16 | 4264546 KnightTakesKing
KnightTakesKing's picture

This party always does...

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 10:31 | 4263579 Imminent Crucible
Imminent Crucible's picture

I think it's not so much "looking down your noses at the poor" as it is resenting those who willingly live by consuming without being productive.  The welfare queen is much like the trader, but with one big difference: We are not compelled at the point of a gun to provide quick profits to the trader.  We can exit the markets, and let the bots and chumps mug each other 20 times a day, or second if you like.

We are not given the option to withdraw our support of the freeloaders, either on Wall Street or 7th Ave.  Beyond the natural resentment it breeds, there is a worse consequence: the spiritual destruction of the people who are allowed to steal for a living, to eat food they didn't work for, and to know they are nothing but parasites on the rest of us.  The material poverty is not the cause of the spiritual poverty in the ghetto; it's the other way around.  People without self-respect, without discipline, without a basic education or understanding of the world around them, are doomed to despair and hopelessness.  And they self-medicate that despair with drugs and fornication and XBox and day time TV.

They are addicted to living without hope or aspiration for a better life.  When you have no hope, you have no energy or will to take the hard uphill road.  It's called sloth, and it permeates our society.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:38 | 4263802 Abrick
Abrick's picture

We are not given the option to withdraw our support of the freeloaders, either on Wall St or 7th Ave. But only the 7th Avenuers have a gun pointed at us? WTF is wrong with self-medication with fornication?

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 12:39 | 4260930 Oreilly
Oreilly's picture

I'm commenting on someone's comments to an article in the Atlantic based on BLS statistics ... can't see any loss of resolution with each level removed from the actual data here.  But that said, you're assuming that the respondents to a government survey represent reality.  If I'm scamming the system or if I simply choose to not work and take assistance, why would I bother to answer these questions?  And if it's a good scam, say one in which I don't actually exist but am one of the fictitious identities made up by the scammer, how in heaven's name could I even begin to answer the survey?  The survey likely is based on a selection of appropriate respondents and presents results that you want to see, namely assitance being used to help those who just need a hand up to be like those not needing assistance, only at a slightly lower scale.  How surprising.

I don't wish to cast doubt on all government assistance programs, but I treat all of them as I treat anything set up by Ceasar ... I render unto them what belongs to them to begin with.  All large money programs are going to be wasteful, private or governmental because the large money programs are where the largest ill-gotten gains can be had ("Why do you rob banks? Because that's where the money is ...").  I understand this, and it's been a fact of my life since I can remember.  I wish people would stop trying to justify it and make me think they are other than they are.

In other words, quit pissing on my head and telling me it's raining.  I know it's not. 

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 12:38 | 4260918 Marc To Market
Marc To Market's picture

Ah i see.  Very convincing evidence thank you. 

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 10:55 | 4263660 Gene Parmesan
Gene Parmesan's picture

The charts above are garbage as they compare everyone below a certain minimal threshold (that required to receive assistance) with the entire universe of people above it, including the very wealthy, who account for a disproportionate amount of spending. Make the comparison between those on public assistance and those not on public assistance yet living a similar lifestyle and it's a different story.

Stop perpetuating junk "science."

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:49 | 4264241 Gene Parmesan
Gene Parmesan's picture

And I would think the "Head of Currency Strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman" would be able to write such a simplistic post without so many glaringly obvious grammatical and content problems.

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 19:23 | 4262162 Czar of Defenes...
Czar of Defenestration's picture

By the way, it seems English may not be your mother tongue.  You write, "Families receiving assistance spend about half as much as families drawing on assistance."

A) To "receive" and to "draw on" welfare mean the same least in the USA.

B)  What the chart clearly says is that the LEECHES spend half of what THOSE WHO DO NOT TAKE WELFARE (and likely PAY in taxes so the LEECHES can live off THESE OTHERS' LABOR).  No surprise.

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 19:15 | 4262144 Czar of Defenes...
Czar of Defenestration's picture

M2M, Do you prefer the moniker


DEALER, or simply


Thu, 12/19/2013 - 18:50 | 4262095 Panafrican Funk...
Panafrican Funktron Robot's picture

For me, the issue isn't the conveyance of a portion of my productive labor to assist people that are under-resourced.  The issue is:

1.  Why are there so many people that need help?  

2.  Why are the mechanisms for conveying this help so inefficient and ineffective?

The first is due to our friendly neighborhood bankster overlords laying waste to our productive economy and means to generate real wealth.  The second is due to our friendly neighborhood government beaurocracy that is wed to said bankster overlords, in exchange for license to lay waste to our productive economy and means to generate real wealth.

In other words, your entire post obfuscates the actual problem, which is that there should be way the fuck less people struggling mightily to put food on the table and pay the rent in a normally functioning, healthy economy, and there should be way more efficient and effective means of helping people who are under-resourced.  You, sir, have also fallen victim to the poor vs. poor-haters "divide and conquer" scheme, and deserve the same "think, people!" admonition you have attempted to serve in your post.

Thu, 12/19/2013 - 18:29 | 4262043 MeBizarro
MeBizarro's picture

It won't matter what you post because the kind of ZH posters attracted this article will disregard it on this topic.  I'm certain there is a level of fraud that is slightly higher than what the gov't acknowledges at its most general level but supposedly if you read ZH there are people on gov't assistance driving really fancy cars, picking up steaks, etc.  Funny but you don't see that in West Philly when I drive though at times. 

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 10:46 | 4263617 Gene Parmesan
Gene Parmesan's picture

Without using the term "social contract," explain to me what right the government has to threaten me with violence in order to extract from me - a supposedly free man - to give to another as it sees fit? Please then explain how the existing system has not been irreparably corrupted by those seeking to gain and maintain their political power through those redistributive activities.

Please also explain how our welfare state requires its dependents to ever make an honest effort at standing on their own 2 feet.

Charity is not within the federal government's constitutional purview.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 13:34 | 4263871 SafelyGraze
SafelyGraze's picture

here is a puzzling data point:

Poor Smokers in New York State Spend 25% of Income on Cigarettes

"puzzling," because in the chart up above, cigarettes would come in at about $7000

but they don't show up at all, unless hidden within the "other" category


Thu, 12/19/2013 - 11:56 | 4260771 Guinny_Ire
Guinny_Ire's picture

Having worked in check cashing in my youth and in high risk finance as well, I'd say they're not sorely over exaggerated but sorely underreported. It's a gamed system where multiple ids, multiple addresses and multiple SS#s make for multiple identities. Granted not everyone is going to know how to do it but enough do.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 22:18 | 4265935 spooz
spooz's picture

Just how does your previous employment give you such insight?  Were people coming up to you with these multiple IDs, fessing up? I would imagine you would be seeing a lot more corruption up the foodchain in the "high risk finance" work.

You sound like the typical response I would expect from somebody who is trying to spread propaganda.

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 11:59 | 4263894 MachoMan
MachoMan's picture

There was a link posted on this site, probably a couple years ago, of a purported study from an ivy league school of the spending habits of the poor in africa...  the gist was that parents tended to buy cell phones, booze, and cigarettes rather than education for their children, which perpetuated the poverty cycle...

PS, to add deduction to your anecdotal evidence, if we can admit that handouts are vote buying mechanisms, then why would there be any reasonable prohibition for fraud?  There is no incentive to cure fraud when the entire social safety net is a vote buying mechanism...  I'm not sure fraud is even the right term under the circumstances...

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