Welfare Fraud

Welfare fraud is investigated and prosecuted as theft, and can result in serious fines and jail time.

Remember the “welfare queen” whom Ronald Reagan described during his first presidential campaign as driving around in a Cadillac, living large? That particular woman was convicted of welfare fraud, but the symbol of the “welfare queen” led to a major overhaul of the welfare system in the U.S. that greatly reduced the benefits system. Although welfare fraud is not nearly as pervasive as Reagan and other welfare-reform advocates claimed, it does happen and the repercussions can be serious.

What is “Welfare Fraud?”

“Welfare” is a term used to describe public relief or benefits paid to individuals who show need based on their financial status, age, disability, or other infirmity. Welfare also includes the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), which some refer to as food stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“AFDC”). Payments for welfare come out of the public coffers funded by tax revenues. The federal welfare programs are administered by the states.

Anyone who lies about their need or entitlement to welfare is engaging in welfare fraud. The lies may concern the person’s financial need, earnings, marital status, or living situation. And, welfare fraud can include not disclosing certain information, such as a change in circumstances that would affect a person’s entitlement to receive aid.

Woman Charged With Welfare Fraud For Failing To Report Husband’s Return

A woman applied for, and received, food stamps and AFDC for herself and her two dependent children after loss of income when her husband left the family. The husband reunited with the woman within six months, but the woman neglected to inform the Department of Social Welfare of this fact. After the Department discovered that the husband had returned, it prosecuted the woman for welfare fraud and she was convicted. (In re Sands, 18 Cal.3d 851 (1977).)

Laws Punishing Welfare Fraud

Some of the welfare statutes themselves make it a crime to engage in fraud to obtain benefits. They impose penalties upon those convicted of violating the provisions.

Welfare fraud may also be punished under a state’s general larceny, theft, forgery, or perjury statutes.


Theft is not limited to snatching a pile of money out of a till. A person who receives money through false pretenses may be convicted of theft under state criminal law. This includes a welfare applicant who lies on an application in order to get welfare.


Welfare applications require that applicants sign an oath that the information provided in the application is true to the best of their knowledge. If a person has made a false statement or knowingly provided inaccurate information on the application in order to support his or her chances of getting welfare and then signed the application as true and correct, that person has committed perjury.

Aggressive Enforcement

Some jurisdictions are particularly zealous in their efforts to uncover and punish welfare fraud. San Diego County in California, for example, “deputizes” welfare department personnel as employees of the prosecutor’s office. These investigators then make unannounced “visits” at the homes of welfare applicants. Under the program, the investigators can walk through the house and even look in closets, trash cans, and other receptacles (presumably for signs of drug use or the presence of an unreported adult). The department rejects the application of any applicant who refuses to submit to this search. The investigators forward evidence of violations to the prosecutor for criminal investigation.

Repayment Not a Defense

In the case of the woman who failed to inform the welfare department that her husband had returned home, the court rejected her offer of repayment of the welfare she received after his return as a defense to the charge of welfare fraud. In effect, the court said that a thief who offers to give back the money she stole is still guilty of the original theft.

What Are The Penalties For Welfare Fraud?

State welfare statutes and general criminal statutes (such as theft) impose penalties for conviction of welfare fraud that range from repayment of the monies fraudulently received to years in prison and hefty fines. For example, the “welfare queen” that then-candidate Reagan referred to received a prison sentence of two to six years.

See a Lawyer

If you have been accused of welfare fraud, or if you have questions about welfare fraud, see an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area. Welfare fraud is a serious crime and carries significant penalties, including possible prison time.

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