The public assistance program that was part of the 1935 Social Security Act was initially a minor program. It was called Aid to Dependent Children and it provided financial assistance to needy children. It made no provision for assisting parents or other relatives in a household. Participation by states was voluntary. (In 1939, eight states and the territory of Alaska didn't have a program.) The federal government paid one-third of the benefits, up to a maximum federal payment of $6 a month for the first child and $4 for each additional child. The welfare rolls expanded in the 1950s and 1960s and the programs (renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) exploded in the 1970s. The welfare rules were modified over the years to encourage work. For instance, in 1968 Congress mandated that the states set up work and training programs. Incentives to get welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs were added over the years until the welfare reform act of 1996 changed AFDC into workfare. For more information, read After Welfare, an American RadioWorks documentary about the impact of the 1996 law.
There are many federal food programs. They range from free meals for low-income students at public schools to milk vouchers for pregnant women. The best known of these programs is food stamps. Food stamps were introduced in an experimental program in 1939 as part of the New Deal. (Read Bridge to Somewhere, an American RadioWorks documentary about the New Deal.) The program ended in 1943. It was revived once more as an experimental program in 1961 and the Food Stamp Act was passed in 1964. The food stamp program has long enjoyed bi-partisan support, especially from the farm states, and the program has expanded over the years. It provides about $100 a month for qualifying families. About one in eight Americans—some 40 million—are expected to take advantage of the program in 2010. It's now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Read more about food stamps.
For much of American history poor people were concentrated in slums. The federal government started to build subsidized public housing in 1937 and the projects improved living standards. The public housing building boom continued in the first two decades of the post World War II era. Still, affordable quality housing remained out of reach for most poor families. The Johnson administration created the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1966 with a mandate to improve and increase housing units for low-income renters. However, in many cities the mammoth public housing projects deteriorated into segregated, poorly maintained, crime-ridden warehouses for the poor. The need for affordable housing remained even though bad living conditions and the steep cost of public housing projects convinced governments at all levels to look for alternatives. A major initiative came under President Nixon's watch. His administration initiated the Section 8 voucher program to encourage landlords to rent to low-income families. Tax incentives were also created to encourage private developers to build more affordable income units. The federal voucher program is now the main government program for providing shelter to poor people. In the 1990s many cities started tearing down their public housing high-rises, relying instead on vouchers and new low-rise mixed income developments. For more information, read After the Projects, an American RadioWorks documentary about moving people out of public housing.
The basic idea behind providing money to poor families with dependent children was to allow mothers to raise their kids at home just like middle-class mothers. That was the 1930s. As more middle-class mothers went to work in the 1960s and '70s the policy focus increasingly shifted toward encouraging low-income mothers to work outside of the home. That meant offering some form of child care. Before the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, parents on welfare who enrolled in a job-training program were entitled to subsidized day care. The 1996 Act left child care subsidies up to the states. The demand for subsidized child care is greater than the supply, especially now that strapped state and local governments are cutting back much of their spending on programs geared toward low-income families. Read more about child care subsidies.
Medicaid became law in 1965. The federal government partners with the states to provide health care to people with certain disabilities, poor children, and some very low-income adults. The program was expanded in 1972 and a prescription drug benefit was added in 2003. While many people think Medicaid is a health care program for poor families, a low income isn't enough to qualify for Medicaid. The program is limited to people who fall into certain categories. For example, poor women can get coverage when they are pregnant, but many lose that coverage when their children are born. And most poor men do not qualify for Medicaid unless they are disabled. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 gives states the option to cover more low-income people by expanding Medicaid coverage. Read more about the impact of health care reform on Medicaid programs.