The federal Food Stamp Program (FSP) was designed to improve low-income families' purchasing power in order to prevent hunger and poor nutrition. Congress originally intended the program to "safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households."(31) Food stamp benefits "make up the difference between the household's expected contribution to its food costs and an amount judged to be sufficient to buy an adequate low-cost diet" (U.S. Congress 2000). Food stamp eligibility is determined based on income, expenses and family composition (i.e., how many adults and children live in the household and share food costs and consumption). If expenses are greater than income or the difference between income and expenses are insufficient to purchase an adequate low-cost diet, then food stamps make up the difference. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the FSP through its Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), and eligibility guidelines are the same across the country. States and some local governments, however, are responsible for eligibility determination and disbursement of food stamp benefits, and they may receive waivers to implement program modifications.
Congress made major modifications to the FSP as part of welfare reform in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA).(32) For example, able-bodied recipients ages 18 to 50 with no dependents are now required to work to retain benefits. This was the first time Congress attached work requirements to the program.
More significantly for our study, PRWORA also restricted noncitizen eligibility for food stamp benefits. PRWORA made many more legal immigrants ineligible than had been the case before. (Illegal immigrants have never been eligible for federal food stamp benefits.) PRWORA cut benefits for legal immigrants except for refugees during their first five years in the country and other narrow categories of legal immigrants.(33) The law requires legal immigrants to either naturalize or prove that they, their spouse or their parents worked in the country for a combined total of at least 10 years. In 1998 subsequent legislation(34) restored food stamps eligibility for children and disabled adults who entered the country before August 22, 1996, as well as for immigrants who had their 65th birthday before that date. Eligibility was also extended from five to seven years after entry for refugees and asylees. But working-age legal immigrants entering before August 22, 1996 and legal immigrants of all ages entering after enactment remain ineligible, unless they can show 10 years of work history (Fix and Zimmermann 1998).
In the wake of welfare reform, several states introduced programs to replace federal food stamp benefits for noncitizens. California and New York, where our survey was conducted, are among the 18 states that provide state-funded food stamps or similar assistance to at least some legal immigrants who are no longer eligible for federal benefits. The California Food Assistance Program (CFAP), among the most generous of the state-funded programs, provides food assistance similar to food stamps for all "lawful permanent residents," whether they entered the country before or after PRWORA was enacted. For the post-enactment group, CFAP eligibility determination includes the income of the immigrant's sponsor (i.e., that income is "deemed" to be available to the immigrant) during the first three years the immigrant lives in the country, unless the sponsor is deceased, disabled or physically abusive toward the immigrant (California Department of Human Services 2001). New York's Food Assistance Program (FAP) covers a much more limited population: children, elders and the disabled who entered the country before enactment of PRWORA. Because the federal government restored FSP eligibility to children and disabled immigrants, FAP currently covers only pre-enactment elders ages 60 and up not eligible for the federal FSP. (The 1998 federal law restored FSP eligibility to immigrants already 65 years old and residing in the United States on August 22, 1996.) New York's FAP requires participants to apply for citizenship within 30 days after they become eligible to do so, and is optional for counties and local governments to join the program. New York City participates in FAP, and in summer 2001 represented about 1,200 out of the 1,300 total statewide caseload.(35) California's program extends eligibility to a much broader group of noncitizens than does New York's, and so a larger proportion of legal immigrants in Los Angeles should be eligible for public food assistance.
While the federal Food Stamp Program and state-funded food assistance programs are funded differently, they are often administered so that recipients are unaware of the source of funding. States usually "buy" federal food stamp coupons or electronic benefits, which they distribute to immigrants under the same program name and in the same fashion that they are provided to native-born citizens. Thus immigrants getting state-funded food stamps probably do not realize that they are not participating in the federal program.(36)