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“Medicaid provides health care at a noticeably cheaper price than Medicare does, and both are cheaper than the cost of private-sector health insurance,” he said. “The problem is not that the programs are badly designed — it is that the entire health care system in the U.S. is much more expensive than in any other advanced country.”

Combined with several programs also directed at health care, the category made up 46 percent of total welfare spending in 2011.

Mr. Kogan said the cash assistance figure was “a shockingly small amount of money” in the scheme of things.

“Virtually all the rest is in the form of in-kind assistance: Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, housing vouchers, Pell Grants, LIHEAP and child care vouchers; or in the form of direct services, such as community health centers, Title 1 education, foster care, school lunch and Head Start,” he said.

Rather than straight transfers, those other programs provide support for services Congress has deemed worthy of funding. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that used to be called food stamps; LIHEAP is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; WIC is the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; and Pell Grants provide assistance for college costs.

The conservative Heritage Foundation said roughly 100 million Americans get benefits from at least one low-income assistance program each month, with the average benefit coming to around $9,000.

The think tank estimates that if welfare spending were transferred as straight cash instead, it would be five times more than needed to lift every American family above the poverty line — though many of the programs help those above the poverty line.

Mr. Sessions’ Budget Committee staff said that at current projections, the 10 biggest welfare programs will cost $8.3 trillion over the next decade.

The Congressional Research Service looked at obligations for each program as its measure of spending. It included every program that had eligibility requirements that seemed designed chiefly to benefit those with lower or limited incomes. The report looked at programs that had obligations of at least $100 million in a fiscal year, which meant some small-dollar welfare assistance wasn’t included.

Political wrangle

The report was released as President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney fight over the size and scope of government assistance.

Mr. Obama has taken heat from Republicans for a new policy that Republicans argue would remove work requirements from the 1996 welfare reform. The administration said it is merely adding more flexibility for states, which still would have to prove the law is meeting its jobs goals.

Mr. Romney was damaged last month by caught-on-camera remarks in which he said 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and see themselves as victims.

In Tuesday’s debate, Mr. Romney blasted Mr. Obama for overseeing a 50 percent increase in the number of people on food stamps, which has risen from 32 million to 47 million.

But the two men also share some agreement on safety-net programs. In the debate, Mr. Romney said he wants to increase the Pell Grant program to help low-income students pay for college.