How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Conclusions


LANYCIS data indicate that many immigrants, particularly those who are not citizens, now face challenging economic circumstances. Using a broad array of measures (income, food security, housing affordability, and health insurance coverage), members of immigrant families tend to face greater difficulties compared to native citizen families, despite comparable or higher rates of labor force attachment. The data show that immigrants typically fare worse on these measures, even when only low-income families are considered. Naturalized citizens generally fare better than noncitizen immigrants, but still not as well as the native-born. About one-third of the members of immigrant families are native citizens, mostly the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Thus the difficulties faced by immigrant families affect many native as well as foreign-born children.

Since the data in this report were collected in 1999 and 2000, they report the circumstances of immigrants in the post-welfare reform era. The data are, however, primarily descriptive and are not longitudinal; thus our analyses should not be interpreted as measuring causal effects of welfare reform on immigrants. Other reports, however, have presented trend data showing that noncitizens' use of public benefits fell in the period after welfare reform and that citizen children in immigrant families also lost coverage (Zimmermann and Fix 1998; Brown, Wyn, and Ojeda 1999; Fix and Passel 1999; Food and Nutrition Service 2000; Ku and Blaney 2000; Fix and Passel 2002).

The data in this survey do not permit a comparison of the lives of immigrants here and in their home countries. It is reasonable to believe that many families fare better in the United States, although it also likely that at least a few fare worse. But community expectations, differences in standards of living, and the length of time immigrants have resided in the United States make such comparisons difficult. The current body of knowledge indicates that most immigrants come here to improve their lives by gaining better economic opportunities, to flee persecution, or to rejoin members of their families  not to obtain public benefits (Reimers 1992; Portes and Rumbaut 1996). For example, a recent survey of undocumented aliens found that less than one percent said they came to the United States for social services or related benefits (Berk et al. 2000).

Nonetheless, our analyses of immigrant families in Los Angeles and New York City reveal disparities between immigrants' apparent needs (e.g., poverty, food and housing insecurity, and insurance coverage) and their use of public benefits. When low-income immigrant and native citizen families are compared, immigrants tend to exhibit higher levels of need but lower use of government assistance in the form of Medicaid, food stamps, and so on. There are many possible reasons for these disparities, including eligibility restrictions imposed by the 1996 legislation, immigrants' fears about possible adverse consequences of using benefits, language barriers, and cultural differences.

A notable finding of the survey is that a large fraction of immigrants, including low-income noncitizens, believe that using public benefits like Medicaid or food stamps might harm them, particularly by endangering their immigration status. Program administrators and community leaders need to consider how they might reassure the immigrant community and decrease their wariness about benefits use.

Another important finding, however, is that immigrants' fears and misperceptions have a limited impact on their program use. The survey shows only a modest relationship between misunderstandings of eligibility rules and participation in Medicaid. There is no evidence that these misunderstandings deter FSP participation. Respondents living in families receiving food stamps were no more or less likely than those in families not receiving food stamps to believe that their children were ineligible for benefits or that welfare receipt would prevent them from becoming citizens. Analysis of in-depth follow-up surveys suggests that immigrants are reluctant to use benefit programs, but will do so when their need is great enough. Thus there is strong evidence that fears and misperceptions persist in immigrant communities, but the relationship between these fears and participation in means-tested benefits programs needs further research.

The survey also reveals that immigrants who arrived after August 1996 are poorer than those who arrived earlier. This finding is consistent with previous research indicating that it takes time for many immigrants to adjust to life in the United States, to develop their job skills, and to get good jobs. Current federal policy has divergent rules about benefits eligibility, depending on when an immigrant enters the country and whether or not he or she is a refugee. For example, refugees, who have extremely high levels of poverty, may obtain benefits like food stamps and Medicaid during their first several years in the United States. On the other hand, legal permanent residents also experience greater poverty during their first few years in the country, but they are generally barred from eligibility under federal rules. While LPRs mostly enter the country under the auspices of sponsors who should theoretically support them, there is a paucity of research about the provision of assistance to immigrants by their sponsors. Given the divergence between new policies regarding sponsorship and the relatively high poverty rates we have observed among the newest arrivals, it seems paradoxical that means-tested benefits are denied during the period when immigrants appear to face the most difficult economic circumstances.

Other research has pointed out some of the coping strategies used by low-income immigrants. For example, since they are highly uninsured, immigrants tend to rely on safety net health care providers, such as public and charity clinics and hospitals. But they may also delay getting medical attention, go without needed care, or turn to underground providers who potentially offer poorer quality care (Feld and Power 2000; Maloy et al. 2000; Ku and Freilich 2001).

The research detailed in this report concentrates on one element of the process of immigrants' adjustment: their need for and use of public benefits. While they may provide support for work and important assistance during times of economic crisis, programs such as food stamps, TANF, SSI, Medicaid, or SCHIP cannot serve as cure-alls. To succeed on a longer-term basis in the United States, low-income immigrants also need more education, better language capabilities, and stronger job skills. But it might be more difficult for immigrants to develop these capacities and to make the necessary human capital investments if they have difficulty meeting basic daily needs for food, housing, or medical care. These survey data, collected just a few years after the implementation of the new welfare policies, cannot provide a long-term assessment of the implications for immigrants, but they do indicate that  a few years after welfare reform  many immigrants face a range of difficulties and challenges in meeting their basic needs.

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