This Chart Blows Up the Myth of the Welfare Queen

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows us the frugal reality of life on the social safety net. 

Here's a useful graph to keep handy for the next time Fox News airs a report about food stamp users buying lobster with their benefits.

This month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics compared yearly spending between families that use public assistance programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, and families that don't. And surprise, surprise, households that rely on the safety net lead some pretty frugal lifestyles. On average, they spend $30,582 in a year, compared to $66,525 for families not on public assistance. Meanwhile, they spend a third less on food, half as much on housing, and 60 percent less on entertainment.

These figures, drawn from the 2011 Consumer Expenditure Survey, don't capture all non-cash perks some low-income families get from the government, such as healthcare coverage through Medicaid. But they give you a sense of the kind of tight finances these families deal with.

Take the food budget: There were, on average, 3.7 people in each family on public assistance (I know, that sounds weird, but bear with me). So that $6,460 spent on food comes out to about $34 per person, per week. Not exactly a shellfish budget. 

(h/t Kate Gallagher Robbins)

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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