How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?

Preliminary Evidence from Los Angeles and New York City

Submitted by:
Randy Capps, Leighton Ku and Michael Fix
Chris Furgiuele, Jeff Passel,
Rajeev Ramchand, Scott McNiven, Dan Perez-Lopez
[The Urban Institute]

Eve Fielder, Michael Greenwell and Tonya Hays
[Survey Research Center, University of California at Los Angeles]

Submitted to:
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

March 4, 2002

This report is available on the Internet at:

To obtain a printed copy



Executive Summary

Part I. A Profile of the Los Angeles and New York Immigrant Population Following Welfare Reform

Part II. Food Assistance and Food Insecurity



List of Tables

List of Figures

Executive Summary

In 1996, debates about welfare reform and immigration converged and reshaped federal policies about the eligibility of legally admitted immigrants for means-tested public benefits programs, including the Food Stamp Program (FSP), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Before the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was enacted in 1996, legal immigrants were eligible for benefits on terms similar to those of native-born citizens. The new law significantly limited the eligibility of legally-admitted immigrants for means-tested federal benefit programs, particularly immigrants entering the United States after the welfare reform law was passed in August 1996.

In early 2002, as this report was going into publication, these debates were being revisited within the context of TANF's reauthorization. Legislators had introduced versions of a bill to restore Medicaid to all legal immigrant children and pregnant women (the Immigrant Children's Health Improvement Act) in 2001. Several bills to restore food stamp eligibility to immigrants had been proposed. For instance, President Bush's Fiscal Year 2003 Budget (Office of Management and Budget 2002: 68) would restore food stamp eligibility to legal immigrants who had been in the country for five years. Another proposal, reported out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, (1) would restore eligibility to all legal immigrant children and elders, as well as adults who could prove they had worked at least four years in the United States.

This report provides findings from a survey of immigrants in Los Angeles County and New York City that was designed to yield new insights about the status of immigrants in the context of welfare reform. The report summarizes data from a survey of 3,447 immigrant families (i.e., families with at least one foreign-born adult), including detailed data on 7,843 people in those families. The survey was conducted in late 1999 and early 2000 by the Survey Research Center of the University of California at Los Angeles. Data from the survey offer a rich source of information about immigrant families, particularly low-income ones, in the two largest urban areas of the country. The survey describes the living conditions of about 4.8 million people in Los Angeles County and 3.5 million people in New York City who live in immigrant families. Unlike other household surveys with large samples, LANYCIS includes information on immigration status. The survey was conducted in five languages and had a strong response rate of 69 percent.

We augmented this survey in three ways. First, we conducted follow-up, in-person interviews with 100 households in each city. Second, we analyzed data about families of native-born citizens in Los Angeles and New York City, using the annual Current Population Survey (CPS), collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Third, for comparison data on native citizen families in California and New York State, we analyzed the Urban Institute's National Survey of America's Families (NSAF).

Organization of the Report. The report is set out in two sections. The first gives an overview of the demographic composition of immigrant families, and analyzes trends in immigrants' labor force participation, income, poverty, program use, and health insurance coverage. The second section of the report hones in on immigrants' food insecurity and food stamp use. Appendices follow that describe the survey's methodology, strategies for imputing and editing data, measurement of food insecurity, and analysis of food stamp participation.

Legal Status and Composition of Immigrant Families

Income, English Proficiency and Employment

Housing Affordability Problems and Food Insecurity

Use of Food Stamps and Other Public Benefits

Health Status and Insurance Coverage

Immigrant Perceptions of Program Rules


These survey data indicate that many immigrants in Los Angeles County and New York City, particularly those who are not citizens, live in families experiencing economic hardship. We examined an array of hardship measures, including poverty, food insecurity, moderate hunger, housing problems, and lack of health insurance. When compared with native citizen families, the immigrant families in the survey have consistently lower incomes and higher hardship levels, despite relatively high employment rates. About 80 percent of the children in these immigrant families are native-born citizens, and they share economic hardship with their immigrant parents and siblings.

These data were collected in 1999 to 2000, roughly three years after welfare reform was enacted and implemented and several months to a year after the federal government issued guidance about the public charge implications of benefits participation. Since these data are cross-sectional and the analyses are primarily descriptive, these findings should not necessarily be interpreted as the effects of welfare reform or other state and federal policy changes. Indeed, immigrants faced many hardships before the laws were enacted. The findings outlined in this report, however, show reduced benefit use and substantial levels of need among immigrant families in program areas directly affected by welfare reforms' immigrant eligibility restrictions. In addition, our findings are consistent with other research indicating declines in public benefits use by immigrant families since 1996.


1.  "Agriculture, Conservation, and Rural Enhancement Act of 2001," S. 1731, reported out of committee in November 2001. For more information see


This report was supported by a cooperative agreement between the Urban Institute and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A number of other federal agencies also contributed support and guidance to this project, including the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) and the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) from HHS, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) from the Department of Agriculture, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from the Department of Justice. The lead federal project officer was David Nielsen of ASPE. Support for the research and writing was also provided by the Ford and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations.

The survey was conducted by the Survey Research Center, which is part of the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The survey was led by Dr. Eve Fielder, with further management by Tonya Hays and Michael Greenwell. Other key UCLA staff included Chris Corey, Mark Herwick, and Daniel Yu. Jay Sumner was UCLA's sampling statistician. A great number of interviewers worked hard to help collect these data.

Several Urban Institute colleagues and former colleagues made important contributions to the design of this project, the implementation, and the analyses in this report, including Maria Enchautegui, Leticia Fernandez, Alyse Freilich, and Wendy Zimmermann. John Coder of Sentier Research helped with data imputations. One of the report's principal authors, Leighton Ku, was on the staff of the Urban Institute when this report was first drafted, but is now affiliated with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Numerous federal agency staff provided helpful comments on draft versions of this report, including: David Nielsen, Caroline Taplin, and Jennifer Tolbert (ASPE), Girley Wright (ACF), Penelope Pine (HCFA), Karen Hamrick and William Kandel (ERS), Jenny Genser (FNS), and Lisa Roney (INS).

Most important of all, we are grateful to the thousands of respondents in Los Angeles County and New York City who made the survey possible and to the local officials who work with them on a day-to-day basis.

The opinions expressed in this report should be interpreted as those of the authors and should not be interpreted as reflecting the views of the Urban Institute, its trustees, or any of the federal agencies that helped fund this project.

To Obtain a Printed Copy

You may obtain a printed copy of this report by sending or faxing your name and mailing address along with the title of the report to:

Human Services Policy, Room 404E
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
200 Independence Av, SW
Washington, DC 20201

Fax:  (202) 690-6562

You may also print the PDF version of this report (2.2MB).

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Last updated:  03/04/02