Welfare Info

History of Welfare

An Introduction to the History of Welfare in America

Welfare in the United States commonly refers to the federal government welfare programs that have been put in place to assist the unemployed or underemployed. Help is extended to the poor through a variety of government welfare programs that include Medicaid, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Historical Poverty Rate in the US

Welfare is a fluid topic that cannot be discussed without first understanding the history of poverty in the United States. Many welfare programs are tied directly to the poverty line, which is defined federally on an annual basis.

  • The poverty line changes based on the number of members in a household.
  • The poverty line is dependent on the year.
  • Poverty statistics are available at the national, state and county level.

In 2017 the poverty line for a single adult was $12,488, but for a family of four it was $25,094. In 2000, those numbers were $8,791 and $17,604, respectively.


Historical Timeline of US Government Benefits

  • Social Security Act of 1935

    This act provided the first national system of social welfare benefits in the United States, providing for old-age, survivors, and disability insurance. It was a major milestone in the history of government benefits, as it established a social safety net for the increasing number of elderly in the U.S. population.

  • Food Stamp Program of 1964

    This program was established to provide assistance to low-income households by providing them with vouchers which they could use to purchase food. This program has helped to reduce hunger and poverty in the U.S., and it has been estimated that it has contributed to a reduction in child poverty by as much as 20%.

  • Medicaid and Medicare of 1965

    This program provides health insurance to low-income and elderly Americans. This program has helped to reduce healthcare costs for those who cannot afford them and has enabled many Americans to access necessary medical care that would otherwise be unaffordable.

  • Earned Income Tax Credit of 1975

    This program provides a tax credit for low- and moderate-income families. It is designed to encourage and reward work, reduce poverty and inequality, and stimulate the economy by boosting consumer spending power.

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families of 1996

    This program provides temporary financial assistance to low-income families. It has helped to reduce poverty and inequality, as well as providing important support to families in need.

Understanding the Poverty Line

The poverty line is based upon the household size and the year.

What is the poverty line for a family of 4?

For a Family of 4, the historical poverty line by year has gone from $9,990 in 1983 to $27,750 in 2022.

Early History

The history of welfare in the U.S. started long before the government welfare programs we know were created. In the early days of the United States, the colonies imported the British Poor Laws. These laws made a distinction between those who were unable to work due to their age or physical health and those who were able-bodied but unemployed. The former group was assisted with cash or alternative forms of help from the government. The latter group was given public service employment in workhouses.

Throughout the 1800's welfare history continued when there were attempts to reform how the government dealt with the poor. Some changes tried to help the poor move to work rather than continuing to need assistance. Social casework, consisting of caseworkers visiting the poor and training them in morals and a work ethic was advocated by reformers in the 1880s and 1890s.

Prior to the Great Depression, the United States Congress supported various programs to assist the poor. One of these, a Civil War Pension Program was passed in 1862 and provided aid to Civil War Veterans and their families.

When the Great Depression hit, many families suffered. It is estimated that one-fourth of the labor force was unemployed during the worst part of the depression. With many families suffering financial difficulties, the government stepped in to solve the problem and that is where the history of welfare as we know it really began.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Social Security Act was enacted in 1935. The act, which was amended in 1939, established a number of programs designed to provide aid to various segments of the population. Unemployment compensation and AFDC (originally Aid to Dependent Children) are two of the programs that still exist today.

A number of government agencies were created to oversee the welfare programs. Some of the agencies that deal with welfare in the United States are the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Education.

Head Start State Collaboration

The Head Start State Collaboration Offices were first funded in 1990 as a pilot project much like the Head Start program that started as an experiment in 1965. At first, 12 states were funded. The purpose was to create significant, statewide partnerships between Head Start and the states in order to meet the increasingly complex, intertwined, and difficult challenges of improving services for economically disadvantaged children and their families. Funding for ten more states followed two years later. By 1997, all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico had Collaboration Offices. In 2008, the American Indian/Alaska Native and the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs established Collaboration Offices.

Welfare history continued to be made in 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Under the act, the federal government gives annual lump sums to the states to use to assist the poor. In turn the states must adhere to certain criteria to ensure that those receiving aid are being encouraged to move from welfare to work. Though some have criticized the program, many acknowledge it has been successful.

Those who seek welfare information can find such information on the Internet or by looking under United States Government in their local phone book. Programs are available to those who qualify to provide welfare help in the areas of health, housing, tax relief, and cash assistance.