There are many different types of welfare, but each are generally concerned with a government trying to provide support for its citizens. This may take place through social welfare provisions, social security, or financial aid. When the government is seen as supporting businesses directly, rather than allowing the free market to cause some businesses to fail, it is pejoratively described as corporate welfare. And when a government allows its programs to grow to a point deemed excessive by critics, they may choose to describe the government as a welfare state.
Really, any program in which the government provides money or services to citizens who are in need is a welfare program. As such, many programs that critics do not criticize could, in fact, fall into this category, and in these cases the term should be seen to mean primarily programs in excess of a certain base level. At the same time, proponents of greater welfare would point to theoretical programs as simply looking after more base needs, and therefore on a similar footing as existing social support systems.
A social welfare provision, which is what many people mean when they speak of welfare, is a program that aims to give a base level of income to people who may be out of work, disabled, or elderly. The idea is that without the government stepping in to help these groups, they would otherwise not survive, and so the government has a moral obligation to support them. Proponents also point out that keeping people at a certain minimum level allows them to work, and therefore ultimately helps the society at large financially.
People who have been laid off, for example, may be eligible for welfare while they look for other work. This may come in the form of direct financial assistance, or in the form of a scrip, such as food stamps, which may be exchanged for necessary commodities. Those who have a disability which keeps them from working may be eligible for the same sorts of programs, although they do not face the requirement of searching for a new job.
Many nations have a national health care system, which acts as a massive form of welfare, allowing those of all socioeconomic groups access to medical attention should they need it. In the United States, certain medical welfare systems exist to support those most at risk, particularly children, but there is no universal health care system in place. One universal form that does exist in the United States, and has for a long time, is free education for all citizens up to the completion of high school. The government covers the cost entirely, including in cases of need transportation and food, and this is one of the least contentious forms of welfare currently in the United States.
In the United States, welfare may also be used in a more specialized context, to refer specifically to what was historically known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and is now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Since 1997 this system has been handled by the states, who use money given to them by the Federal government as they see fit. This welfare system is limited to a maximum of 60 months during the recipient’s lifetime, and has a requirement that while receiving assistance the recipient must be actively seeking new employment.