How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Use of Food Stamps and Other Public Benefits


  • In 1999-2000, relatively small shares of low-income immigrant families (those with incomes below twice the poverty level) reported receiving benefits like food stamps, TANF, or Medicaid. For instance, 13 percent of low-income noncitizen families in Los Angeles and 22 percent in New York City received food stamps, compared with 34 percent of low-income native citizen families in each state.
  • Among immigrant families, those with naturalized citizens tended to have higher participation rates for these benefit programs than did families composed of noncitizens, including legal permanent residents. This was especially true in New York City (where, for instance, 24 percent of naturalized families but only 14 percent of LPR families reported receiving food stamps), but in Los Angeles benefits use varied less by citizenship and legal status. Differences in food stamp participation between naturalized citizen and noncitizen families may be narrower in Los Angeles because post-enactment LPRs retain eligibility due to California's replacement program.
  • A large fraction of the noncitizen families receiving food stamps before the welfare reform law was implemented reported that they had not received benefits during the years since. About half of the families receiving food stamps in 1996 or 1997 were not receiving benefits at the time of the interview, in 1999 or 2000. Roughly half of those respondents whose families were still receiving benefits at the time of the interview said that their food stamp allotments had been reduced. The reported reasons for reduced or lost benefits were generally unrelated to immigration status.
  • Large proportions of immigrant families experiencing food insecurity do not receive food stamps, indicating that there is substantial unmet need for food stamps in both cities. About four-fifths of food insecure families (82 percent in Los Angeles and 78 percent in New York) did not receive benefits during the year before the survey.
  • Nonetheless, benefits appear to be targeted to families most in need. Single-parent families with children are more than twice as likely and those with LEP adults three times as likely to receive food stamps than other families, when controlling for poverty and immigration status.
  • Receipt of other benefit programs appears to improve access to food stamps. TANF recipients and refugees in New York City have the highest rates of food stamp receipt.
  • Most respondents losing food stamps since welfare reform cited employment, income improvements and family composition changes as the reason for benefits loss. Fewer than 10 percent cited policy changes, bureaucratic problems or errors. One reason these results differ from some nationwide studies may be that immigrant families in Los Angeles benefited from California's seamless replacement of lost federal food stamp benefits.

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