Virginia Spends the 16th Least on Welfare

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Provided by Lattice Publishing

In its first year, the Biden Administration has embarked on an aggressive domestic agenda intended to offer a variety of economic support to lower and middle class Americans. The American Rescue Plan, passed in March, included direct payments to U.S. households, new investments into safety net programs like food stamps and unemployment, and increases to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

The Biden Administration followed this just a few weeks later with two proposals, the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, which would dramatically scale up federal spending on a variety of programs for infrastructure, job creation, education, child care, health, food assistance, and tax relief. Biden’s agenda has prioritized a strong role for the federal government in offering financial support to needy Americans and creating pathways to the middle class.

This agenda would represent a new chapter for the U.S. welfare state, building beyond the New Deal programs introduced in the 1930s and the Great Society programs enacted in the 1960s. These earlier programs created a wide-ranging role for the government in protecting disadvantaged citizens from economic harms.

Public welfare now encompasses a variety of federal, state, and local programs. The term includes federal programs like Social Security and TANF, which offer direct assistance to eligible populations, Medicaid and Medicare, which offer healthcare to low-income and elderly populations, unemployment insurance, and other important support.

Because these programs are typically based on demographic and economic factors, they have grown with shifts in the population and economy over time. According to the Census Bureau, in the last 20 years alone, state and local welfare spending has more than tripled in nominal dollars, rising from $233 billion nationally in 2000 to $743 billion in 2019. As a share of total spending, welfare spending has risen from 13.4% of state and local budgets at the start of the millennium to 18.8% in 2019. But even on a per capita basis, spending is up nearly 180% over that span.

welfare spending

And in comparison to other budget items, public welfare is now the single largest category of expenditure in state and local budgets. Welfare spending totals $743 billion, narrowly topping elementary and secondary education spending ($717 billion) and running far ahead of other categories like higher education, highways, and protective services.

welfare spending

While the role of state and local government in welfare spending has grown everywhere, some states invest more than others in welfare programs. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case. For one, states with more liberal politics may choose to invest a greater amount in social safety net programs, which is why many coastal states have greater per capita welfare spending, led by New York at $4,094. Another source of disparities between states is their underlying population or economic characteristics. For instance, states like Arkansas, West Virginia, and Kentucky all spend more than a quarter of their budgets on welfare spending, which is likely due to the fact that they have greater populations of low-income residents who are eligible for state-administered federal assistance programs like TANF or Medicaid.

welfare spending

To determine the states spending the most on public welfare, researchers at calculated total state and local welfare spending per person using the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Public welfare spending includes cash assistance payments, vendor payments, and other uncategorized payments administered by state and local governments.

The analysis found that in Virginia, 15.6% of total state spending is dedicated to welfare spending, compared to the national average of 18.8%. In total, Virginia spends about $1,652 per resident on welfare each year. Out of all U.S. states, Virginia spends the 16th least on welfare. Here is a summary of the data for Virginia:

  • State & local welfare spending per capita: $1,652
  • State & local welfare spending as a share of total spending: 15.6%
  • Total state & local welfare spending: $14,188,133,000
  • Cash assistance payments: $361,999,000
  • Vendor payments: $11,585,485,000
  • Other public welfare: $2,240,650,000

For reference, here are the statistics for the entire United States:

  • State & local welfare spending per capita: $2,257
  • State & local welfare spending as a share of total spending: 18.8%
  • Total state & local welfare spending: $743,712,401,000
  • Cash assistance payments: $23,020,008,000
  • Vendor payments: $620,896,279,000
  • Other public welfare: $99,796,114,000

For more information, a detailed methodology, and complete results, visit


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