As of July 8, 2014, the demographic breakdown of welfare recipients was 38.8 percent Caucasian, 39.8 percent African American, 15.7 percent Hispanic, 2.5 percent Asian and 3.3 percent Other. There are 12.8 million Americans on welfare, which is equivalent to 4.1 percent of the U.S. population.
Welfare began during the Great Depression of the 1930s when the number of families that were in need of food, clothing and housing became so great that the existing resources of local governments and private charities could not adequately help. At the start of the Great Depression in October 1929, there were already 18 million Americans struggling to survive. By 1933, an additional 13 million Americans had lost employment, and the head of the federal Children's Bureau reported that 20 percent of the nation's school children showed signs of poor nutrition, housing, and medical care.
On Aug. 18, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, which, in addition to establishing a federal retirement program for Americans over the age of 65, created a national welfare system. This new welfare system provided assistance to dependent children under the age of 16, the unemployed, the needy and the disabled. Significant changes were made to welfare in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which provided some federal funding to states to assist the poor. States are expected to take steps to ensure welfare recipients are being encouraged to take steps to return to employment.