Category Archives: 101

A Brief History of Welfare in America

brief history of welfare

This week I listened to another audiobook courtesy of the Overdrive app and my local library. If you have a smart phone, tablet, or e-reader, I highly recommend you ask your local library if they have the Overdrive app available. There are tons of audiobooks and e-books you can check out for free.
Anyway, when I was scrolling through audio titles recently, I came upon a book called $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. My first response to the cover material and introduction was skepticism. For as much as I know about poverty and hunger, I still did not believe that this extreme level of poverty was possible in America. Between SNAP, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security Disability, welfare, WIC, private charities, and private donations, I could not believe that there were people with no job AND who were turned down from these social security nets.

As the authors, a sociology professor and a social work professor, began to unwrap their research, I could see the pockets of this level of destitution that exist here in the United States. I still had trouble finding sympathy for some of the subjects because of their terrible life choices. The authors did not go digging for the most innocent victims of poverty, to be sure. I am also not completely sold on some of their conclusions. Their plan involves a lot of expansion in government services and job creation, yet they offer few if any suggestions about how to fund such programs.

But feelings and solutions aside, the most valuable part of this book in my opinion was the historical context it gave to American welfare programs. So using this book as my source, today’s post is a review of that history.

The Great Depression
Prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s, government welfare programs were virtually unheard of in the United States. But when things got desperate, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted several pieces of legislation aimed at putting Americans back to work and providing for those who were unable to care for themselves. Many of the programs (such as the Works Progress Administration which put Americans to work on public works programs) expired or were discontinued when the Depression ended. Others continue even to this day, including Social Security for the elderly and disabled, Medicare and Medicaid health insurance. One of the programs that came out of the Depression era was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare. AFDC provided a cash safety net for families with children who found themselves in a desperate situation.

The Great Society
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded social service programs, including AFDC, as part of his “Great Society” initiatives. Johnson’s goal was to eliminate poverty and racial inequality in America through a series of legislation which expanded existing social programs like Social Security, AFDC, food stamps, and Medicare/Medicaid. It also created Head Start, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The 1970s and 1980s
Reaction to the Great Society programs were mixed. While it provided tremendously for struggling Americans, many felt that it rewarded indolence and unwed procreation. Edin and Schaefer argue that welfare was widely unpopular after the Great Society because it was at odds with deeply held American values like self-sufficiency, the primacy of family, and the value of hard work. They site a study where the majority of Americans in a survey group stated that they believed that the government was not doing enough to help the poor, and in the same survey they responded that welfare was too expensive. Americans were concerned that welfare was trapping people in a cycle of dependency, and they complained of costly abuses of the system. Ronald Reagan made welfare reform a campaign issue in the late 1970s, and the popular support for welfare reform helped get him elected.
Also during this time, the food stamps program was renamed SNAP, and a program using an Electronic Balance Transfer (EBT) card rather than paper food stamps was instituted to cut down on the (illegal) sale of food stamps, a popular survival strategy for people with no cash income.

Welfare Reform
For all the rhetoric, Reagan was not able to push though significant welfare reform. The issue continued to be a popular campaign topic but difficult to enact. In 1991/92, Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton took up the mantle, promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Once elected, President Clinton set out to reform the welfare system using aspects of a plan proposed by Harvard professor Dr. David Ellwood. Elwood’s plan proposed a system that encouraged work through a combination of cash welfare and job training, with limits on welfare that would encourage individuals to wean off the system and guaranteed jobs in government if nothing was available in the private sector. As the various welfare bills made their way through committees, the House, the Senate, and onto the President’s desk (where two welfare reform bills were vetoed), the legislation looked less and less like Ellwood had imagined. The final result was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which virtually eliminated welfare as we knew it and instituted a new work-based program. It replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a program that supplied cash welfare with strict time limits and work requirements designed to prevent long-term welfare dependence. The results have been mixed. Proponents are quick to point out that the welfare rolls have shrunk dramatically, but opponents point out that the number of families suffering from lack of resources, and the strain on private charities have increased as a result of the reforms.

The System Today
The TANF program was reauthorized in 2005 with slight adjustments. Following the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a temporary addition to TANF designed to get Americans through the recession. It provided a temporary TANF emergency fund (2009-10) as well as jobs programs aimed at stimulating the economy and improving American infrastructure through public works programs.
In 2010 the TANF program was reauthorized for a second time.

It’s not easy to tell the whole story of American welfare in 1000-ish words. I know this does not cover every argument for and against the programs. But it does provide you with a basic understanding of how we got to where we are today. Edin and Schafer argue that the old system was out of sync with American values and full of holes, but they also argue that the current system leaves many people with few legal options. They propose further reforms that focus on wage and workplace protections, and work opportunities, among other ideas.

This feels a bit scary, like opening Pandora’s Box, but if we agree to be civil I think we can have this discussion. What POSITIVE changes would you like to see in the way the federal government treats the poor? More mental health services? An increase in the minimum wage? Leave a comment!

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) 101


It’s time again to take a look at one of America’s food aid programs. If you’re interested in the other programs I’ve covered in this series, check out the links!

SNAP (Food Stamps)
Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
UN World Food Programme (International)
Meals on Wheels (Non-profit, not government program, although they do distribute on behalf of programs that feed the elderly)
Head Start 101
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – The Declaration of Independence

All men are created equal… It’s a founding principle in America, the core of who we think we are as a nation. But are we really born equal in this country or anywhere in the world? But all over this nation (and around the world) there are those who are born into situations that will stunt and limit them for their whole lives. Poverty, discrimination, and disability impede the unalienable rights of many.

Most of us are familiar with America’s history with the Native American population. As white settlers moved west in the 18th and 19th centuries, they decimated the native populations and forced the survivors onto smaller and smaller reservation lands. For the most part, these reservations were located on land that was no good for farming and without valuable mineral resources. The native cultural practices and languages were discouraged or forcibly changed. Cruely, the Indians were not allowed to be themselves, nor were they accepted even if they did change.

For generations, Native Americans have been behind the curve – perfectly capable but stunted by malnutrition, poor medical care and education on the reservations, and the cycle of poverty and suffering has just kept perpetuating itself. Of course there are exceptions, but when you start with an uphill climb just to get to a level playing field, it’s hard to win.

Many answers have been suggested. One of them is to include Native American reservations in government food distribution programs. The idea, of course, is that access to healthy foods will keep people healthy, and give children the nutritional support that they need to learn and grow. So the American government established a wing of the commodity-distribution program that specifically addresses nutrition on Indian reservations.

Being a commodity distribution program, the people who receive aid from the FDPIR program do not receive money or vouchers, but are given a monthly box of food stuffs from an approved list of foods. The program targets “low-income American Indian and non-Indian households that reside on a reservation, and households living in approved areas near a reservation or in Oklahoma that contain at least one person who is a member of a Federally-recognized tribe.”

To receive aid from this program, one must contact one’s tribal government to apply. Aid is distributed based on financial need, and families have to reapply every 12 months, or 24 months in the case of the elderly or disabled.


I hope you have appreciated this series of government program 101 posts. If you know of a program I missed or if you have any questions, please leave a comment!

The Emergency Food Assistance Program – TEFAP 101


It has been a while since I brought you a 101 post about an American or international hunger relief program. But we’re not out of programs to explore. That’s one of the things I’ve learned as I researched for these 101 posts – there are A LOT of different programs and participating distribution organizations out there! Here are the agencies and organizations we have looked at so far…

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps) – Longer-term (time in the program varies widely) assistance by way of money for food (in the form of a prepaid card that works only for qualifying food purchases) given to individuals who make their own choices within the program guidelines.

WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) – Food handouts for women and their children from pregnancy through kindergarten in exchange for the mothers taking nutrition training courses.

NSLP (National School Lunch Program) – Targeted provision given to schools so they can provide free and reduced price lunches to school-age children in low-income families.

UN World Food Programme – (International) Food relief arm of the United Nations

Meals on Wheels – A non-profit organization that receives money from these government funding sources to provide meals and a check in for seniors who are trying to remain independent. Meals on Wheels is not a government program, but is one of the partner non-profits that administers some of the government spending.

Head Start – A preschool version of the NSLP designed to meet the vital nutritional requirements of a growing preschool age child.

TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) – a food distribution program that buys agricultural products and distributes them to emergency feeding organizations like food banks and soup kitchens.


And still to come…

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) –

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) – Program specific to provisions for Native Americans living on reservations.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) – Senior specific food aid program.

Other smaller programs, international organizations, and aid distributing organizations

For today, let’s take a quick look at TEFAP:

TEFAP stands for The Emergency Food Assistance Program. Through the TEFAP program, the US Department of Agriculture sends actual physical food to agencies in each state (such as food banks or soup kitchens) that provide emergency provision for people in need. The organizations have to meet certain criteria, like providing the means to protect the food from spoilage and loss. They are also responsible for making sure that the households receiving the food meet state eligibility standards. The food items provided by TEFAP include things like dry pasta and beans, canned fruits and vegetables, soups, dairy products, etc.

The program started in 1981 as a means to help reduce surplus government food stores while also helping those in need. In 2014, the program cost the government $318.15 million, $49 million of which went to administrative costs. The rest covered the cost of the food. Compared to some of the big programs, like SNAP, NSLP, and WIC, the money spent on TEFAP is small potatoes.

Because many emergency food distributors rely on the products they receive from TEFAP, so their clients have to meet income guidelines to keep the organization eligible for the TEFAP food. There are also food banks and charitable services that do not require users to meet eligibility guidelines. This is important to know because sometimes a person or family’s circumstances change suddenly, while on paper things don’t look so bad. Agencies receiving government support from programs like TEFAP need that layer of accountability, while other organizations can have broader standards because they raise their funds from private donors who believe in their mission. Both types of organization play an important role in feeding the 10-12% of Americans who struggle with food insecurity.

Does your organization receive support from TEFAP? We want to hear about your experience in the comments below!

Head Start 101

Head Start

If you’re new around here, I do these 101 looks at government feeding programs about once a month. Check out the other government program 101 posts!

SNAP (Food Stamps)


NSLP (School Lunch Program)

UN World Food Programme

Meals on Wheels

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the American Government’s Head Start Program. The program was designed as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” war on poverty. Essentially, Head Start is a funnel. It establishes guidelines and distributes grants of federal government funds to early childhood programs that meet those guidelines. In theory, although the federal government is handing out the funding, the care of children is still being handled on a local level.

Who benefits from Head Start? In theory, we all do. In reality, the jury is out. Some see this as a vital government program while others are disappointed in the cost and the results. The program is supposed to benefit children in utero through kindergarten with education and nutrition and healthcare services that give them a “head start” or more accurately, keep them from starting out behind, when they enter school.

There is no doubt that infant and preschool nutrition is vital. A child who starts life with nutritional deficiencies may never catch up. And for many families right here in the U.S., that threat is a distinct possibility.  Head Start supports the programs that stand between children and that fate. It begins with programs that educate expectant mothers. Once a child is born, Head Start sponsored programs provide nutrition and parenting education for the parents, medical and dental care for children, and nutritional feeding programs at daycare centers and preschools. As a child nears kindergarten age, Head Start funds preschool education to prepare the kids for classroom learning.

Head Start is a controversial program because it is expensive and it’s nearly impossible to nail down what role it has in ensuring that children succeed. In recent years, the federal government has been cracking down on the accountability of programs that benefit from Head Start. From the Atlantic: “Operating under authority from a 2007 law signed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration has started requiring Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits to compete against other local providers—and win—to keep their grants for the next five years. If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2014 the federal government will have reviewed every Head Start program under new performance criteria. So far, more than 350 of some 1,700 Head Start grant recipients have been forced to compete for their funding, and many more will be required to do so in the years ahead.”

So how much money are we talking about here? In 1966, the program first full year, Head Start cost $198,900,000, and benefited 561,000 people (average cost of $354.55/person). The cost of Head Start has increased steadily over the last fifty years, as has the enrollment. In 2012, Head Start had a price tag of $7,968,544,000 and benefited 956,497 people (average cost of $8,300/person). With that large of a price tag, it’s good to see that the government is cracking down on underperforming programs.

I’ll admit that I am personally torn over the value of Head Start. It seems so very expensive, and the benefits of this costly program are unclear. I have an easier time supporting programs like SNAP, WIC or the National School Lunch Program which actually provide food directly to those (mostly children) in need. In my mind that seems a lot more concrete, obviously effective, and overseeable (is that even a word? It is now…) It has been eye-opening to research these programs and discover the way the federal government doesn’t “do” things, it funds things the states do and loosely oversees them. I have been both pleased that these programs are available for those who need them, and fearful of the opportunities for abuse of the system.

As with all of the programs I have covered in the 101 series, I encourage you to do some homework and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks before you take political action. We are responsible for the votes we cast and the political action we take, so let’s make sure we have all the facts straight and let that guide our consciences and our political actions.

Do you have additional information or resources about Head Start and/or government feeding programs? Enlighten us by sharing in the comments, but remember to be respectful. Both sides of the political spectrum care deeply about this country and its children. They just have different ideas about how to best get there.

A couple webpages that I used in my research for this post:

The Atlantic –

Head Start website –

Washington Post –

Meals on Wheels 101 and Service Opportunity

Meals on Wheels

In 2010 there were 57 million senior citizens (defined as over the age of 65) in America. That number is expected to double to 112 million seniors in 2050. This explosive growth is because 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, and American life expectancy is at an all-time high. Seniors are the fastest growing population segment in America.

As seniors age, many struggle to remain independent. Expenses grow faster than their fixed retirement income and Social Security cost of living increases can keep up. Physical problems make it hard to get around. Social isolation, especially in rural areas, may mean that no one checks on their health and safety for weeks at a time. Senior citizens have to fall back on Medicare/Medicaid more heavily when their physical and/or social limitations lead to longer hospital stays after treatments, or earlier nursing home moves.

The solution is really quite simple. Someone needs to check on seniors who live alone, and help them get groceries and prepare a hot meal. Of course in most situations the family takes care of these needs, but what about seniors who have no family, or those who live far from their loved ones?

That is the idea behind Meals on Wheels (MOW). Meals on Wheels is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that has provided hot meals and check-ins to seniors who are poor, physically disabled, or socially isolated since their first meal delivery in Philadelphia back in 1954. They claim to save tax money by allowing seniors to be safely independent for a longer time.

Funding for MOW is a public-private partnership. There is some tax money designated to feed seniors in need, but much of their income comes from corporate and private donations of money and food, and most of their work is done by volunteers. Meals on Wheels America is the national organization. They oversee more than 5,000 community-based MOW operations around the country. Nationwide, those local chapters deliver more than a million meals a day, and more than 2 million volunteers work with them preparing food, delivering meals, serving (MOW dinners are served at some senior centers as well as home delivery), doing office work, helping at events, and conducting safety checks.

The time commitment for volunteers and the skills needed vary from job to job. To find out what kind of help is needed in your area, or to put yourself or a loved one on the list to receive Meals on Wheels, contact your local MOW chapter (Find it HERE).

Meals on Wheels has faced some budget cuts in recent years. This CNN Article from 2013 was helpful in my research and covers the topic of their funding issues.

The Better Business Bureau has rated the national MOW organization. See that review HERE.
Charity Navigator has reviewed the local MOW chapters. Visit their site to search for your local chapter.

The national Meals on Wheels website has tons of great resources for seniors and their families.

Have you or a loved one experienced Meals on Wheels? Share your story in the comments!