Welfare reform might have passed in 1996 but the idea of welfare remains one of the raw nerves in American politics. Conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes tapped into that theme during his regular morning show on WTMJ in Milwaukee. He teed it up by explaining why the American taxpayer was the "loser of the day."
"According to the new census data, the number of Americans who receive means-tested government benefits -- welfare -- now outnumbers those who are year-round full-time workers," Sykes said. "Wow. We’ve been struggling, but in terms of the tipping point here, where you have more people who are on these benefit programs, these are the means-tested benefit programs, than the people who are actually working and paying the taxes."
In this fact-check, we’ll look into whether today there are more people getting these benefits than there are full-time workers. By the way, means-tested applies to aid that comes only if the person is poor enough to qualify. The programs include Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), subsidized housing and several others which we’ll mention below.
We asked Sykes where he got his information and he sent us a link to an article that appeared on the CNS News website. CNS News is a project of the Media Research Center, a conservative group that aims to counter what it sees as liberal bias in the media.
The CNS News item accurately cited two reports from the Census Bureau. One report gave the number of 108 million people receiving at least one means-tested benefit. The other gave the number of 101 million people who work full time.
The math seems simple, but those reports don’t tell the entire story. Here’s why.
Census Bureau includes double counting
The original CNS article links to the key Census Bureau tables. The table on recipients of means-tested aid has this note at the top. "The figures for means-tested programs include anyone residing in a household in which one or more people received benefits from the program."
So, if one person receives Supplemental Security Income, a program for disabled adults, the entire household was included in the tally. As a result, it was possible for full-time workers to be counted as recipients.
Another table in the same data collection gives an idea of how common that might be. Out of a total of more than 108 million recipients, there were more than 79 million households with at least one person working. The data don’t say whether that was a full-time worker but the numbers guarantee that the tally of recipients is exaggerated.
Sykes said this was a situation that exists "now," but what is interesting is the article is very clear that this information is from 2011. Here’s the article’s first line: "Americans who were recipients of means-tested government benefits in 2011 outnumbered year-round full-time workers, according to data released this month by the Census Bureau," it said.
Sykes spoke about a situation that he said existed today. The economy in 2011 is not the one we have in 2013. Among other big differences, unemployment is lower by 1.4 percentage points.
Updating the numbers
We went to several agency websites to determine what their participation figures look like today. In every case that we could check, they had declined.
The 2011 survey had 13 million. For 2012, we found 9 million.
SNAP (food stamps):
The 2011 survey had 49 million. For 2013, we found 47 million.
The 2011 survey had 82 million. For 2013, we found 72 million.
The 2011 survey had 5.8 million. For 2013, we found 3.7 million.
In contrast, the number of full-time workers went up. The article cited 101 million. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 142 million.
We are unable to duplicate the Census Bureau method for 2013. It was based on a survey and used statistical techniques to generate its figures.
So today there are generally less people receiving some type of government assistance and more people working full time.
One final note: The number of recipients includes millions of children under the age of 16 and the elderly. The Census Bureau tally folds in the school lunch program. In the spring of this year, 29 million students benefited from that. About a third of the residents of public housing are over 62. By most standards, we don’t expect these people to work. To compare them to the number of full-time workers might be useful policy information but to fail to note that children and the elderly, not to mention the blind and disabled, are folded into the tally of recipients is highly misleading.
Sykes said that "the number of Americans who receive means-tested government benefits -- welfare -- now outnumbers those who are year-round full-time workers." Sykes ignored that the article he read, in its first line, described the situation in 2011, not today. In addition, current numbers look quite different from 2011 when the country was at a lower point in its slow climb back from a deep recession. The article also pointed to the original data tables where it was clear that at the very least, the numbers could have blurred the distinction between those who work and those who are counted as recipients.
The failure to note the large numbers of children and elderly in the recipient group is also a significant lapse in the context of comparing them to the number of full-time workers.
We rate the claim False.
Correction: An earlier version of this fact-check wrongly identified the Media Research Center.