How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform? Preliminary Evidence from Los Angeles and New York City


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

  • United States citizens make up more than half of the members of the immigrant families included in the survey, which was conducted in late 1999 and early 2000. About one-third are native citizens, and most of them are the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Additionally, roughly a quarter of family members are naturalized citizens. (In this report, we use the term "immigrant" broadly to include all foreign-born people, including legal permanent residents, refugees, naturalized citizens, undocumented aliens and other foreign born persons. Because these groups have differing legal statuses, benefit eligibility, and socioeconomic characteristics, this report also provides more detailed estimates by immigrant category.)
  • About one-sixth of the members of immigrant families in Los Angeles County and one in 12 in New York City appear to be undocumented aliens.
  • As of early 2000, there were about 123,000 legal permanent residents (LPRs) and refugees who entered the United States since August 1996 in Los Angeles County and about 210,000 in New York City.
  • The Los Angeles sample includes adults born in 75 countries, and the New York sample includes adults from 109 countries.

Income, English Proficiency and Employment

  • Thirty-one percent of immigrant families in Los Angeles are poor (with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level), and 61 percent have low incomes (below 200 percent of the poverty level). In New York City, 30 percent are poor and 53 percent have low incomes. These poverty rates are more than twice as high as rates for native citizen families in California and New York State.
  • Legal immigrants who entered the country since 1996 are poorer than those who arrived earlier, despite new policies requiring their sponsors to demonstrate incomes over 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The share of legal permanent residents (LPRs) entering after August 1996 with incomes below poverty is 30 percent in Los Angeles and 40 percent in New York City, compared to 27 percent and 29 percent in the two cities, respectively, for LPRs entering before August 1996.
  • The 1996 welfare reform law imposed the most severe eligibility restrictions for federal benefits such as welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid on legal immigrants entering after the law was enacted; yet, these immigrants are poorer than those entering before enactment.
  • Over three quarters of immigrant adults in Los Angeles (about 1.9 million people) and nearly two thirds in New York (1.1 million) are limited English proficient (LEP), using a conventionally accepted definition (not speaking English very well). Using a more conservative, restrictive definition (not speaking English well or at all), 51 percent of immigrant adults in Los Angeles (1.3 million) and 38 percent in New York City (670,000) are LEP. The large share of LEP respondents may be partially attributable to the fact that the survey was conducted in five languages.
  • Limited English proficient adults are also poorer than immigrant adults overall: their poverty rate is 33 percent in Los Angeles and 34 percent in New York City, compared to 13 and 14 percent in the two cities, respectively, among immigrant adults speaking only English or speaking English very well.
  • Immigrants tend to have lower incomes despite high labor force attachment. Overall, labor force participation rates among immigrant adults in both New York and Los Angeles (nearly 80 percent) are comparable to those among native-born adults. But labor force participation is higher among low-income immigrants (73 percent in both cities) than among their low-income native-born counterparts (64 percent in California and 58 percent in New York State). Since immigrants often take low-wage jobs, however, their incomes are generally lower than those of native citizens in the labor force.

Housing Affordability Problems and Food Insecurity

  • Almost one-fifth of low-income immigrant families in Los Angles and over one quarter in New York reported problems paying their rent, mortgage, or utilities during the prior year. High housing costs in both cities contributed to this finding.
  • One-third of all immigrant families in Los Angeles and 31 percent in New York are food insecure. Just over 10 percent experience food insecurity with moderate hunger. Food insecurity and hunger rates are higher for noncitizens than naturalized citizens. The U.S. Current Population Survey reports much lower food insecurity rates for families composed of native-born citizens: 12 percent in Los Angeles and 11 percent in New York.
  • In Los Angeles the rate of food insecurity is twice as high among limited English proficient families (i.e., those in which no adults speak English very well) as among proficient families (40 versus 21 percent). In New York the rate is one and a half times as high for LEP families (36 percent) as it is for proficient families (24 percent). About half of families where adults speak no English at all are food insecure in Los Angeles, and in New York that figure is 57 percent.
  • Thirty-eight percent of immigrant families with children experience food insecurity in both Los Angeles and New York, and about 12 percent experience moderate hunger. In New York half of all single-parent immigrant families with children are food insecure, compared to only about 35 percent of two-parent families. In Los Angeles comparable figures are 45 and 36 percent, respectively, for one and two-parent families.

Use of Food Stamps and Other Public Benefits

  • In 1999-2000, relatively small shares of low-income immigrant families (those with incomes below twice the poverty level) reported receiving benefits like food stamps, TANF, or Medicaid. For instance, 13 percent of low-income noncitizen families in Los Angeles and 22 percent in New York City received food stamps, compared with 34 percent of low-income native citizen families in each state.
  • Among immigrant families, those with naturalized citizens tended to have higher participation rates for these benefit programs than did families composed of noncitizens, including legal permanent residents. This was especially true in New York City (where, for instance, 24 percent of naturalized families but only 14 percent of LPR families reported receiving food stamps), but in Los Angeles benefits use varied less by citizenship and legal status. Differences in food stamp participation between naturalized citizen and noncitizen families may be narrower in Los Angeles because post-enactment LPRs retain eligibility due to California's replacement program.
  • A large fraction of the noncitizen families receiving food stamps before the welfare reform law was implemented reported that they had not received benefits during the years since. About half of the families receiving food stamps in 1996 or 1997 were not receiving benefits at the time of the interview, in 1999 or 2000. Roughly half of those respondents whose families were still receiving benefits at the time of the interview said that their food stamp allotments had been reduced. The reported reasons for reduced or lost benefits were generally unrelated to immigration status.
  • Large proportions of immigrant families experiencing food insecurity do not receive food stamps, indicating that there is substantial unmet need for food stamps in both cities. About four-fifths of food insecure families (82 percent in Los Angeles and 78 percent in New York) did not receive benefits during the year before the survey.
  • Nonetheless, benefits appear to be targeted to families most in need. Single-parent families with children are more than twice as likely and those with LEP adults three times as likely to receive food stamps than other families, when controlling for poverty and immigration status.
  • Receipt of other benefit programs appears to improve access to food stamps. TANF recipients and refugees in New York City have the highest rates of food stamp receipt.
  • Most respondents losing food stamps since welfare reform cited employment, income improvements and family composition changes as the reason for benefits loss. Fewer than 10 percent cited policy changes, bureaucratic problems or errors. One reason these results differ from some nationwide studies may be that immigrant families in Los Angeles benefited from California's seamless replacement of lost federal food stamp benefits.

Health Status and Insurance Coverage

  • Immigrants and their children tended to report somewhat poorer health status than members of native citizen families. Other research, however, suggests that part of the difference might be caused by cultural differences in reporting and perceptions, rather than due to clinical differences.
  • In Los Angeles, 40 percent of noncitizen children and 22 percent of citizen children in immigrant families are uninsured, compared with about 6 percent in native citizen families in California. In New York City, 28 percent of noncitizen children and 8 percent of citizen children in immigrant families are uninsured, compared with 6 percent of children in native citizen families in New York State.
  • Noncitizen children with legal permanent resident parents are more likely to be uninsured than citizen children in LPR families (55 versus 22 percent in Los Angeles and 32 versus 15 percent in New York City).
  • A key factor in the difference in children's insurance profiles between the two cities is that immigrant children are far more likely to have coverage through New York's State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) than through California's SCHIP Program, Child Health Plus. Both states extend coverage to legal immigrant children in their programs, but the New York program was established several years earlier and has much larger overall enrollment levels that include immigrant children.
  • Forty-two percent of immigrant adults in Los Angeles and 38 percent in New York City lack health insurance coverage. These rates of uninsurance are roughly triple those for native citizens in New York State and California. The primary reason for this gap is that immigrants are less likely to have job-based health insurance coverage. They are, however, as likely as natives to be enrolled in Medicaid.
  • About two-thirds of elderly immigrants are covered by Medicare. While Medicare has brought almost universal insurance coverage to most native citizen elders, a significant share of elderly immigrants are not eligible because of residency rules or because they do not have enough years of credited work experience in the United States. Thus, elderly immigrants are more reliant on Medicaid.

Immigrant Perceptions of Program Rules

  • Almost 40 percent of survey respondents (and 50 percent of low-income respondents) gave incorrect answers to at least two out of three questions about program eligibility and the impact of benefits receipt on their ability to legalize or naturalize. Yet, respondents with wrong answers to these questions were only slightly less likely to be enrolled in Medicaid, and they were no more or less likely to participate in the Food Stamp Program. Responses to the in-depth survey component suggest immigrants are reluctant to use benefit programs, but will do so when experiencing sufficient need.


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.

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Last updated:  03/04/02