How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Food Stamp Benefits


While most of the public benefit programs continued to serve immigrants who entered the country on or before August 1996, the legislative changes for the Food Stamp Program required that many currently participating households be disqualified. When PRWORA was enacted in August 1996, it made most legal immigrants ineligible for food stamps. New immigrant applicants became ineligible and those already receiving food stamps were disqualified as of August 1997 (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities 1997). In 1998, Congress restored food stamp benefits to legal immigrant children, disabled people, and elders already admitted to the United States as of August 22, 1996. Elders must also have been 65 or older on that date (Carmody and Dean 1998). PRWORA also allowed states, using their own funding, to provide additional food assistance to legal immigrants who became ineligible for the federal FSP. California and New York State both provide benefits similar to food stamps to legal immigrants ineligible under the federal rules. Further detail concerning immigrant eligibility for food stamps is provided at the beginning of Part II of this report.

Because food stamps are provided as a household-level benefit, rather than as an individual benefit (like Medicaid), loss of food stamp eligibility may lead to either a complete loss of benefits or to a benefit reduction. The food stamp benefit is based on the number of people in the household and the household income: a four-person household with the same net income as a two-person household will get a bigger food stamp allotment, but not twice as big. Thus even if an individual immigrant becomes ineligible for food stamps, his or her household might still receive food stamps because other members, usually U.S.-born children, are still eligible. However, the household's food stamp allotment would be somewhat smaller since it is based on fewer eligible people. Despite the fact that FSP eligibility is determined on a household basis, our analyses of food stamp participation here refer to families because LANYCIS focused on one immigrant family within each household surveyed.

Figure 1.2 provides information about the history of food stamp use, loss and reduction among noncitizen families who reported receiving food stamps at some period during 1996 or 1997.(21) Note that the data shown might not correspond to the total number of noncitizens who received benefits in those areas during that time period. This is because some noncitizens became naturalized citizens since then, some immigrants moved out of the area (and thus were not in the interview sample in 1999-2000), and, perhaps most importantly, some respondents had imperfect recall of participation three to four years prior to the interview.

Figure 1.2.
Changes in Food Stamp Participation among Families Reporting Food Stamps Receipt in 1996 or 1997
Figure 1.2. Changes in Food Stamp Participation among Families Reporting Food Stamps Receipt in 1996 or 1997

In both Los Angeles and New York City, among those who received benefits in 1996-97, there was a substantial reduction in food stamp use by noncitizen families by 1999-2000. About 30 percent of 1996-97 recipient families in Los Angeles and 20 percent in New York City lost food stamp benefits completely by 1998, while others continued to participate but had reduced benefit levels. By the date of the interview (in 1999 or 2000), 55 percent of those with food stamps in 1996-97 in Los Angeles and 42 percent in New York City had lost all benefits. Among families continuing to receive food stamps, a majority experienced a reduction in allotments.(22)

This does not necessarily mean that these groups of immigrants lost benefits only because of their immigration status; their incomes might have become too high or they may have left the program for other reasons, including confusion or fear of immigration-related consequences. Furthermore, although these groups lost food stamp benefits, other noncitizen families had joined the program since 1996-97. In Los Angeles, 27 percent of those receiving food stamps at the time of the interview had joined since then, while in New York the figure was 25 percent. Presumably, these new entrants are people who were already in the United States in August 1996 but had not participated earlier or who entered the country since that time, especially those entering as refugees (although California serves some post-enactment immigrants who are not refugees).

These longitudinal data should not be confused with caseload trend data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on their quality control sample. The USDA data show that the number of legal noncitizen immigrants who were on the Food Stamp Program dropped 83 percent between 1994 and 1998, while the number of U.S.-born children in legal noncitizen families using food stamps fell by 75 percent (Food and Nutrition Service 2000). One distinction is that the Food and Nutrition Service data only report information for those receiving federally funded benefits, while the survey data in this report also include state-funded food stamps received by immigrant families (since the families themselves typically cannot tell the difference).


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