Guide to Using the United States Welfare System

This guide helps you to understand public assistance and how to use the United States welfare system.

Getting help from the welfare system

Public welfare has long been this country's favorite red herring. Because of our puritanical heritage, we have been graced with that Protestant ethic of ethics which says "No work, no bread!"


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 It's as predictable as weeds in an August garden. Mention "welfare" to the Great Middle Class and a stereotyped image—accompanied by much raving and rantinginstantly flashed across Agnewland: Young, black woman in some big city with four illegitimate children and more on the way, permanently lollygagging about at the expense of "us honest, hardworking taxpayers". Kind of strange isn't it: The Pavlof response never seems to include the families in Appalachia whose farms were strip mined by a company that moved on, took its jobs with it and left... nothing. Nor the old folks whose home and business were destroyed by an urban "development" ... nor the young father dying of cancer... nor the children starving in Georgia because "boss" only pays their daddy $5.00 a day and, that, just during cotton season... nor the old lady blinded by glaucoma... nor even the young, white, middle class working people ("the company lost the contract and closed the plant, you know") that needs a little help till something ("anything") turns up. The truth of the matter is that welfare was designed to do some particular jobs and—whenever those jobs need doin'

it should be used. Furthermore, when it IS usedsince our government seems able to afford moon shots and insane warswelfare should provide something more than a bare existence. A little compassion thrown in wouldn't hurt either.  

At the end of 1968 over 10 million Americans collected public welfare in one form or another from the United States welfare system. But for every individual who received a welfare grant, perhaps two more were eligible! I will attempt to explain the welfare system to you in order that you "know" the facts. If you think you are eligible after reading this, GO TO YOUR LOCAL DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE AND APPLY!

The public welfare system has long been this country's favorite red herring. Because of our puritanical heritage, we have been graced with that Protestant ethic of ethics which says "No work, no bread!" As a natural extension of this train of thought we have added that the poor must be "worthy" as well as needy. And worthiness is measured in terms of how much crow one will eat in order to collect welfare: the more the crow eaten, the higher the welfare grant.

People, welfare is a right, not a privilege. It is guaranteed in the Federal Constitution that all people have the necessities of living. For fact, one need not even be a citizen! One need only be eligible.

In order to see how welfare works, I should first explain how it is financed.

All public welfare as we know it today in the U.S.A. came about due to the Social Security Act of 1935 which carried a provision that: States should insure that their residents have the necessities; states set guidelines for these necessities; and that federal money would be given to states to develop programs within the states to see that poverty was eliminated. However, it was not until the Kennedy years that real teeth was given to the welfare program.

The 1964 amendment to the Social Security Act outlined the various aid categories we still use (to be explained later), and allowed the states to organize and administer these programs using federal money. The states then authorized the counties to organize departments of public welfare, and to regulate and administer these same programs using state and federal matching funds. So long as federal and state guidelines were followed, the county was reimbursed up to 95¢ per each welfare dollar spent. Thus a breakdown of the welfare dollar runs 75¢ federal, 20¢ state and 5¢ county. There are a few county programs which are financed solely by county funds, such as General Assistance and County Medical.

Guidelines that were set up included insuring that a family receive the proper amount of aid to which it is eligible, insuring that a worker receive so many cases as a maximum, insuring that a supervisor have no more than five workers to oversee, etc. Public welfare departments, however, know how to cheat and doctor figures. So do state departments of social welfare. In other words, the figures are always false—they just look good enough to get federal financial reimbursement.

The federal programs that are available include:

  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC or ADC)
  • Aid to Disabled (ATD)
  • Aid to the Blind (AB)
  • Old Age Assistance (OAA or OAS)
  • Food Stamps or Commodities Programs

I shall now attempt a short outline regarding these programs and the county aids one may be eligible to receive

Eligibility Factors

So long as a child exists in at family that is deprived of income to support that child; AFDC is possible. Neither natural parent need be present in order that AFDC payment be collected. Usually the child cannot be older than 18 in order to get AFDC, unless lie remains in school full time. In this instance, payment would continue until the child reached 21. If the family in question has a working father as head of household, the family is NOT eligible to AFDC. If the father is not working, the family is eligible to a special AFDC-U (unemployed male breadwinner in family). However, female breadwinners may work and still receive AFDC for their children. This will be explained later under INCOME.

Grants depend upon number in the family, age and sex of family members, and the state maximum allowable. In other words, grants vary from state to state. Property holdings cannot exceed $600 in liquid assets (bank accounts, stocks, bonds, auto, bank notes, insurance with cash surrender value, etc.). Residence used to be a factor. However the Supreme Court in April 1968 knocked down all state residence requirements for welfare. One need only be physically present and INTEND to remain permanently to be eligible.

This is for disabled people 18 to 65 who are physically or mentally incapacitated from seeking gainful employment or as in the case of housewives, unable to perform household duties. Property holdings cannot exceed $1200 for one in a family, and $2000 for two adults. Real estate holdings must be utilized (an owned home that is being occupied is considered utilized, and is okay). Residence is the same for AFDC. Grants vary from state to state but are flat grants (all ATD recipients receive the same amount).

This category is the same as ATD except one must be legally, not totally, blind to be eligible.

Same as ATD except that the person must be 65 or over.

All those recipients of cash welfare grants are automatically eligible for stamps or commodities. BUT you need not be receiving welfare in order to get surplus food or stamps.

This depends upon your income. You can be working and still have an income below the federal eligibility requirements. Check this out with your local public welfare office. The program varies from county to county, some use stamps while others use commodities. The stamps work as follows: for every $20 of stamps you purchase with cash, you are given an extra $6 of stamps. Commodities are surplus government foods given free at food distribution points.

County Programs

Sometimes you are not eligible for any of the above programs but you may be eligible for county aid. First is General Assistance or Relief. This is a cash grant, very little, which is given for a short time only. Single, employable men CANNOT receive ANY cash aids other than bus tokens and tokens for a bed for the night. Women without families can receive GA, but for a short time at most. GA is usually given to those who are waiting for the federal program to take effect (while they remain under an investigation period, they receive GA). Anyone needing medical help can receive it from the county hospitals under the County Medical Program. Its cost depends upon you financial status. There are some "rehabilitative" programs in counties. These are more like road farms for single, unattached men with nowhere to go. They are usually for the birds.

Special Needs

Special needs include cash grants above and beyond the regular cash aid payment. Only federally reimbursed programs have a special need allowance. Special needs run from extra money for a telephone, medical transportation, special diet on AFDC aids, to laundry and house repairs on OAA aid. Best check with the social worker, or even better, look this up in your state welfare manual. Workers may not know all the regulations themselves. Some do, but act like they were the personal guards of the public coffers and refuse to tell you all that you might be eligible for in order to keep cash grants down.

Other Income

One may receive other income and still be eligible to receive aid. This depends upon the amount of the other income and the amount of public aid. If the other income is less than your grant, it is subtracted from the grant, and you get your grant less other income. But the total remains the same.

For example, suppose you receive $155 for ATD, and social security awards you $105 per month disability. You would then begin receiving only $50 from ATD plus the $105 from social security, but the amount of $155 stays the same. Female breadwinners may work and still collect AFDC for their children. There remains a very liberal allowance to a working mother so that most of her paycheck can be eliminated from welfare consideration, eg., child care payments, auto payments, transportation, lunches, special clothing on the job, books if applicable, etc. When all of these are removed from her paycheck, only a small portion may be counted as income and removed from the AFDC grant. Child support is also removed from AFDC grants.

Special favors over a continual time are construed as income. For example, free rent can cause your grant to have the rent portion removed. Free board removes the food portion and so on. Gifts on special occasions are not income unless the amount is sizeable. Clothing gifts are never counted as income.


Man Assuming Role of Spouse has also been one of welfare's bugaboos. In essence, it states that any man who lives with a welfare family in a spouse-like relationship is presumed to be supporting the family, hence the family may be cut off from aid. As of April 1970, the Supreme Court reversed this due to a California case. Now, welfare departments are obligated to prove that the man is supporting the family before aid can be stopped.

This means that as long as the man can provide for himself, he does not have to leave the home—or even support anyone in the home—in order for that family to receive AFDC. At most, the female parent of the children may be excluded from welfare payments. Before this decision, the boyfriend of a welfare mother had to keep one step ahead of the welfare investigators he can stay all night!

Child Support

Another problem with welfare programs is child support. Most states make it a felony for the male parent to escape paying child support whether he lives with the child's mother or is even married to her. Most states also have reciprocal agreements with each other so that child support dodgers can be arrested and returned to the original state making the complaint. The counties are in charge of this program, and the district attorneys have special departments to do nothing but child support prosecution and investigation. When a mother applies for AFDC she must first sign a Failure to Provide statement against all the natural fathers of her children. These statements can be used to prosecute and even jail those fathers who refuse or avoid payments. If the mother refuses to sign these forms, she may also be refused aid. Some counties of some states will put her through the ringer during their investigation into the whereabouts of the father(s). She may be reduced to a sobbing, screaming blob before they finish with her. Some counties refuse to have any witnesses in the room during this questioning in order to protect themselves from lawsuits

My best advice is to have a lawyer present. Legally, the DA cannot refuse you the right to be represented by a lawyer. This will save you a great deal of stress and embarrassment. Oh yes. There is one aid category in which children can be held financially responsible to their parents! OAA states that all children must be contacted to see if they can help the parent.

Special Welfare Programs

There are various work incentive programs, retraining programs and the like. These can be inspected for possibilities by contacting your local welfare office or the state employment service. You might also investigate higher education programs which sometimes are available. Welfare would underwrite the cost of tuition, books, transportation and living money while you get a college education!

Lastly, there are special children's programs. These special programs include extra money for foster care. There are in this world some very mean, psychotic parents of children who take their own inadequacies out on their children. Neglect, abuse, and abandonment are the losers in each case. Of all the welfare programs, Child Protective Services is possibly the most humane. It insures that parents who neglect or abuse their children are watched, but mainly helped with intensive social work services so that the problem stops. If this cannot be done, the children are removed from the home and placed in foster care.

No one, not even welfare, likes to split up a family. But the first time you see an abuse case is the last time you want a child to remain in the home of psychotic parents. Most large cities have this program. If not, the juvenile division of the police department or sheriff's department can be of help. Remember, children cannot fend for themselves. It is not interfering to intercede on behalf of a child! If you know of parents who mistreat children, call your local welfare agency or police department and have the matter investigated. You may be saving the life of the child.

How to Apply for Welfare

Look up the name of the nearest county public welfare office in the phone book; it is usually listed under your county Department of Public Welfare. Go there. Request an application and a social worker. Remember that you cannot be refused to sign up for any aid program. Welfare can always deny aid, but it cannot deny request to apply for aid. Also, you do have the right to at least talk to a social worker. For family aids, you will need birth certificates or some official papers for the children, and marriage certificate and divorce papers if applicable. For adult aids, you might need particular information. In the case of ATD and AB you will need medical information verifying your illness. If you have personal or real property, these must be seen by the social worker in order to qualify.

There you have it. If you meet these "simple" qualifications sign up. One last word of advice, if I may. Join your local Welfare Rights Organization. WRO is composed of welfare recipients who are dedicated to raising welfare grants so that people on welfare don't starve, and to uplift welfare recipients so that they are something more than "the lost generation". WRO realizes that welfare is a right, and one need not ask, with meekness, for what is legally and rightfully his. WRO demands that every welfare cent to which a person is eligible must be given him. WRO works for the recipient's best interest. If there is a WRO in your area, join it, if, there isn't, organize one!

And best of luck.