How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. National Trends in Food Stamp Receipt


Food security has become a greater concern nationally due to declines in food stamp caseloads since welfare reform. According to a recent study by USDA, participation in the federal FSP dropped from 72 to 55 percent among poor individuals nationally from 1995 to 1999. The study, based on FSP quality control data, concludes that 35 percent of the drop in participation was due to rising income and assets, which could be attributable to economic growth. Over half (56 percent) of the decline was due to lower participation among eligible families (USDA 2001: 15-17). The potential exists for these trends to increase food insecurity among low-income families.

In addition, 8 percent of the decline nationally was due to welfare reform changes, most notably in immigrant eligibility. The number of non-citizens receiving food stamps fell from nearly 1.9 million in 1994 to less than 750,000 in 1999, a drop of 60 percent and nearly double the drop for all participants. The drop among noncitizens accounted for 20 percent of the decrease in number of eligible people nationally (USDA 2001: 1-2, 16-17, 30).

While the reduction in noncitizen FSP participation is generally consistent with the goals of welfare reform, the drop in citizen children participation appears to be an unintended consequence of eligibility changes. For example, among eligible U.S. citizen children with noncitizen parents, participation dropped from 35 to 17 percent from 1994 to 1999 (USDA 2001: 34). USDA concludes:

Citizen children living with non-citizen adults did not lose eligibility under welfare reform, though many of the adults did. While about 80 percent of these eligible children participated in the program in 1994, only 46 percent participated in 1999. Although confusion about eligibility may not be the only factor affecting this group, it is likely to have played a role. The fall in participation among these eligible children explains up to 9 percent of the post-1994 decline in the total number of food stamp participants (USDA 2001: 37).

These declines in food stamp participation among immigrant families may have social consequences in terms of increased food insecurity. Using 1995-1999 Current Population Survey (CPS) data from both the March and April samples, Borjas (2001) establishes a link between food stamp receipt and food insecurity among immigrant families. He compares families living in states that extended food stamp eligibility to legal immigrants to families in states that did not, and reaches the following two main conclusions:

First, the immigrants most likely to be adversely affected by the welfare reform legislation  the non-refugee, non-citizen population living in states that did not extend post-PRWORA assistance to immigrants  did, in fact, experience a significant relative decline in the likelihood of welfare receipt. At the same time, this population also experienced a significant relative increase in food insecurity. By combining data from the two samples, the evidence suggests that eligibility restrictions that cut back the fraction of welfare recipients by 10 percentage points likely increase the fraction of households experiencing food insecurity by 5 percentage points (Borjas 2001: 37).

The findings from the Borjas study are supported by LANYCIS data showing low levels of food stamp participation among both low-income and food insecure immigrant families.

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