How Much Money Is It Possible To Actually Get From Welfare?

A few years ago, I was fired from my job as a shopgirl. Given that I was fired for a fairly ridiculous reason which I will not get into here, I was lucky enough to get unemployment. I was, however, unlucky enough to have lost my job during a time when there just were not any jobs out there.

The amount I received was about $600 every two weeks, which, by the way, is the absolute most that I, a single person with no dependents, could ever possibly get through any form of government assistance. Given that my rent is $650 a month (which is about as cheap as you’re going to find in Chicago), I was lucky in that my parents were able to help me out until I could pull in more income. If I didn’t have their assistance, I would have been completely fucked.

During the year that I was unemployed, I spent nearly every waking hour looking for a new job. I didn’t go out. I didn’t see my friends–and in fact, ended up kind of losing touch with quite a few of them because the world just kept turning without me. I didn’t leave my block except for job interviews and I became severely depressed and agoraphobic. I didn’t date anyone. I felt embarrassed to be alive and I lived in fear of people asking me what I did for a living. I gained 30 lbs because I pretty much lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen. I was entirely alone. I got on Zoloft because I realized that I went to sleep every night not wanting to die, but not necessarily caring whether or not I woke up or not.

In many ways, this was the best thing that ever happened to me, because — being as loyal-to-a-fault as I am — I honestly never would have quit that store on my own. After nearly a year of trying to get a decent full time job, I finally got a part-time job at The Onion, which led to me freelancing for Death and Taxes, which lead to me getting a full-time job with them, which lead to me being here at The Frisky — which is basically the best job I could possibly imagine having. I’m happy about that. I’m not happy about the things that being unemployed and broke did to me on a psychological level. Four years later, I am still recovering. And trust me, I understand that I still had it better than so many others. Since then, I’ve given a lot of thought to poverty and our welfare system.


I am amazed at the ease with which people assume that people on government assistance are just “lazy” jerks who are out there living the high life on the hard earned tax dollars of US citizens. This has been the conservative right schtick since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of Reagan and his tales of “Welfare Queens.” Just this week, I told you about the Oklahoma Republican Party’s Facebook post comparing poor people to animals you shouldn’t feed. And then there’s Scott Walker, that union-busting, trans-vaginal probing motherfucker, talking about how he thinks the minimum wage is such a totally lame idea.

I am amazed at the ease with which people who have no experience being poor assume that those who are just aren’t bothering to find better jobs. I am amazed by how little everyone knows about how little money people on government assistance actually get.

Thus, when I hear conservatives prattling on about how much people love not working and just living off the government, and how they are probably buying all kinds of fancy things with your hard-earned tax dollars? I want to punch them in their smug little faces.

Instead, I decided to take a look and see just how much a person really could get from government assistance programs.

As a single person in Chicago, being on unemployment, I actually still made too much to qualify for SNAP. If I had not qualified for unemployment? I would have been screwed. Sure, I would have gotten $198 in SNAP benefits to spend on food. If I lived somewhere else other than Chicago I might have been eligible for General Assistance, which usually amounts to about $400 a month in Illinois. But other than that and possibly some help with electricity and stuff? Nothing.

Now, do you think you could live on $400 a month plus $200 in food? Probably not! Even if you didn’t have to pay rent or any other bills! Certainly, you would not be living any kind of glamorous baller lifestyle that made you say to yourself, “Geez! Why work when the government will give you free money!”

Yeah, sorry, no.

Let’s say, however, for instance, that I had two kids. If I were the single mother of two kids, I would be eligible for $511 a month in SNAP benefits (if I had zero income) and a maximum of $432 a month in TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which by the way you can only be on for two years max) benefits in the state of Illinois. However, in order to receive the TANF benefit I would have to spend at least 30 hours a week working, attending vocational job training, or looking for a job (and provide proof of doing that).

Were I to work 30 hours a week at a minimum wage job, I would earn $1072 a month before taxes. In that case, I would receive $359 a month in SNAP benefits, plus maybe the maximum of $432 in TANF benefits — a total of $1863, for three people, or $621 a month per person. If I lived in Section 8 housing, my rent would be partially covered, and cost me only 30 percent of my wages, which would mean that I would be paying $321 a month in rent. So, minus rent, that would then make for a total of $1542 per month, $514 per person. This is also assuming that I have no car and no other bills.

If I worked full-time at a minimum wage job (in Illinois our minimum wage is $8.25), I would get $1470 a month before taxes, $359 a month in food stamps, and a slightly smaller amount in TANF.

How fun and glamorous do you think living on $514 a month would be? How easy do you think it would be to just go get another better paying job, in addition to working 30 hours a week at a part-time job, taking care of your children and trying to make ends meet? Especially when it is likely that, at that part-time job, you have no idea what your hours are going to be week-to-week, which makes it very hard to set up interviews. Especially when you barely have enough money for transportation to make it to those interviews. Because let me tell you, I had a hard enough time when I had literally nothing else to do but look for a full-time job.

And I can’t tell you how it gets you down. It just destroys you. If you think that people on government assistance are just saying, “Whatever, I will just take my government moneys, please and thank you,” you are so very wrong, I barely know where to start. It’s not that people just get lazy from taking government handouts and thus don’t bother to lift themselves out of poverty — it’s that it is really, really fucking hard to lift yourself out of poverty. That’s why they call it a trap.

The small amount of money that people get when they qualify for these programs is barely enough to keep them above water. These benefits are not enough to “demotivate” anyone. Poverty is what demotivates. Hopelessness is what demotivates. The feeling of being in a hole that you have no idea how you will ever get out? That is demotivating.


I was one of the lucky ones. If I hadn’t had that unemployment check, if I didn’t have support from my family, if I didn’t have internet access for the purposes of job hunting, nice clothes from my previous jobs for interviews, I honestly don’t know what I would have done during that time. I don’t know what would have happened to me. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.

If we want to make poverty less of a trap, we need to raise the minimum wage to something people can conceivably live on — certainly not eliminate it as Scott Walker would love to do. We need to provide better jobs, we need better and stronger labor laws, we need to create more public works programs, we need to make it possible for people to not feel like they are trapped in a goddamned hole they can never get out of.

The way to do that is not to make that hole even deeper. It’s not to make it harder on people and assume that if we make it even more difficult for them to survive, that they will be suddenly motivated to go find better jobs. There is nothing that is motivational about poverty. There is nothing motivational about not being able to eat. A decent paying job is not going to appear out of thin air just because you pull the rug out from underneath someone.

[Washington Post]


[Illinois DHS]