How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Executive Summary

03/04/2002

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.

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