Myth: People on welfare are usually black, teenage mothers who stay on ten years at a time.

Fact: Most welfare recipients are non-black, adult and on welfare less than two years at a time.


According to the statistics, whites form the largest racial group on welfare; half of all welfare recipients leave in the first two years; and teenagers form less than 8 percent of all welfare mothers.


Here are the statistics on welfare recipients:
Traits of families on AFDC (1)

White    38.8%
Black    37.2
Hispanic 17.8
Asian     2.8
Other     3.4

Time on AFDC
Less than 7 months     19.0%
7 to 12 months         15.2
One to two years       19.3
Two to five years      26.9
Over five years        19.6

Number of children
One           43.2%
Two           30.7
Three         15.8
Four or more  10.3

Age of Mother
Teenager      7.6%
20 - 29      47.9
30 - 39      32.7
40 or older  11.8

Status of Father        1973     1992
Divorced or separated   46.5%    28.6
Deceased                 5.0      1.6
Unemployed or Disabled  14.3      9.0
Not married to mother   31.5     55.3
Other or Unknown         2.7      5.5

Notes on teenagers

As the statistics show, teenage mothers comprise a very small part of the welfare population.

And contrary to popular belief, teenage pregnancy has declined in the last several decades. Many are surprised to learn that the height of teenage pregnancy in the U.S. actually occurred in the 1950s - a decade known for its supposed conservative social values. Between 1960 and 1992, the number of births per 1,000 teenagers (aged 15-19) declined from 89 to 61. (2)

However, this was also an era when individual welfare benefits declined. Between 1970 and 1991, the purchasing power of benefits for the typical AFDC family fell 42 percent, primarily as a result of state and federal cuts. (3) Ironically, many conservatives will be surprised to learn that their correlation still stands, even if they thought it was in the other direction.

However, the period from 1946 to 1963 is known as the "Baby Boom," because all childbearing age groups - not just teenagers - were having children at unusually high rates. The teenage birth rate is not the only one that has declined in the decades since.

Furthermore, the socially conservative 50s featured much less sex education, and many sexually active teenagers were ignorant of birth control. The falling teenage birthrates in the last several decades could as well be correlated with better sex education as falling individual welfare payments.

And on that score, we should compare the U.S to Europe, which not only promotes early sex education to a far greater degree, but also has far greater welfare benefits for mothers with dependent children. And the success or failure of these two very different policies can be seen in the following statistics:

Sexually active teenage population: (4)

Norway          66%
United States   65
United Kingdom  57
Germany         56
Canada          53
Italy           34
France          34

Percent who have not had intercourse by age 20:

               Boys  Girls
Belgium         61     63
Netherlands     58     62
Germany         33     28
Norway          33     25
United Kingdom  24     23
France           9     25
United States   12     16

Percent of sexually active single 15 to 19-year olds using
birth control: 

Germany         95%
United Kingdom  92
Netherlands     88
Norway          87
Sweden          79
Denmark         70
United States   56

Teen pregnancies per 1,000 teenagers:

United States   98.0
United Kingdom  46.6
Norway          40.2
Canada          38.6
Finland         32.1
Sweden          28.3
Denmark         27.9
Netherlands     12.1
Japan           10.5

Teenage mothers per 1,000 teenagers

United States   54
United Kingdom  31
Canada          28
France          25
Norway          25
Germany         20
Finland         19
Denmark         16
Switzerland     10
Netherlands      9
Japan            4

Notes on race

Blacks comprise only 12 percent of the nation, but, according to the above figures, they comprise 37 percent of the welfare rolls. This should not be surprising; in 1994, blacks had a poverty rate of 33 percent. We should not, of course, think it unusual to find poor people on welfare. Consequently, discussions of race and welfare must turn on different issues.

The most prevalent question is why there are so many blacks in poverty. Liberals argue that it is the result of continuing racism and discrimination, especially at hiring time. Conservatives have argued a variety of other causes: moral shortcomings, poor work ethic, even intellectual inferiority. Another important question is whether welfare causes poverty.

These are large topics that can hardly be condensed into a single essay. But they are treated at length in other segments of this FAQ:

Does welfare create poverty?
The Bell Curve debate.

Return to Overview


1. Overview of Entitlement Programs, Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994).

2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Characteristics and Financial Condition of AFDC Recipients, Fiscal Year 1992 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992); 1994 Green Book, p. 47.

3. Paul Taylor, "When Safety Nets Leave the Needy in Free Fall," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, September 9-11, 1991.

4. All statistics charts on teen sex taken from Where We Stand, by Michael Wolff, Peter Rutten, Albert Bayers III, eds., and the World Rank Research Team (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), pp. 242-55.