Policy Documents

The Work versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013

Michael D. Tanner and Charles Hughes –
August 19, 2013

In this white paper for CATO, the authors write that, in 1995, the Cato Institute published a groundbreaking study, The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off, which estimated the value of the full package of welfare benefits available to a typical recipient in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It found that not only did the value of such benefits greatly exceed the poverty level but, because welfare benefits are tax-free, their dollar value was greater than the amount of take-home income a worker would receive from an entry-level job.

Since then, many welfare programs have undergone significant change, including the 1996 welfare reform legislation that ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. Accordingly, this paper examines the current welfare system in the same manner as the 1995 paper. Welfare benefits continue to outpace the income that most recipients can expect to earn from an entry-level job, and the balance between welfare and work may actually have grown worse in recent years.

The current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work. Welfare currently pays more than a minimum-wage job in 35 states, even after accounting for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and in 13 states it pays more than $15 per hour. If Congress and state legislatures are serious about reducing welfare dependence and rewarding work, they should consider strengthening welfare work requirements, removing exemptions, and narrowing the definition of work. Moreover, states should consider ways to shrink the gap between the value of welfare and work by reducing current benefit levels and tightening eligibility requirements.