How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Use of Public Benefit Programs


The question of whether immigrants use benefits at rates higher than the general population has been a central issue in the debate surrounding immigrants' use of public benefits, a debate which greatly affected the 1996 legislative changes (Borjas and Hilton 1996; Fix, Passel, and Zimmermann 1996). Analyses have shown that, in general, immigrants have higher participation rates in many assistance programs than native families, but that low-income immigrants have lower participation rates than low-income native families (e.g., Fix and Passel 1999; Ku and Matani 2001). Immigrants tend to be poorer than the native-born (partially because of differences in educational attainment, English language skills, and larger family sizes), which leads immigrants, as a whole, to use public benefits more often (Fix and Passel 1994). When compared with low-income native citizens, however, low-income immigrants typically are less likely to use benefits.

It is useful to note that, while the survey asks respondents to report whether they receive benefits like Medicaid or food stamps, respondents cannot normally determine whether the benefits are from federally funded programs or state-funded supplemental programs. California, and to a smaller extent New York, provides state-funded supplemental benefits in addition to the federally-authorized benefits. Since the state-funded supplemental programs have the same names as the regular federal programs, recipients are typically unaware of whether, for example, they are receiving federally funded or state funded food stamps. Thus, the receipt of public benefits described in this report should be not be interpreted as necessarily being federally-funded benefits.(15)

Figure 1.1 and Table 1.2 compare rates of current program participation (at the time of the interview) for low-income families (i.e., those with incomes below twice the poverty level).(16) We compared data about low-income nonelderly families in immigrant households in Los Angeles and New York City with estimates for low-income nonelderly families in native citizen households in California and New York.(17) Since the exhibits measure participation by families, they define participation as current use of a program benefit by any member of the family. In some cases, only one person might be receiving benefits.

Figure 1.1.
Percent of Low-income Immigrant and Native Citizen Families with at Least One Member Using Public Benefit Programs

Figure 1.1. Percent of Low-income Immigrant and Native Citizen Families with at Least One Member Using Public Benefit Programs

Table 1.2.
Benefits Program Participation among Low-income Non-elderly Immigrant Families*
Category Low-income non-elderly families* Share of low-income non-elderly families* with at least one member receiving
TANF Food Stamps SSI Medicaid
Los Angeles County
All immigrant families 903,380 10.6% 13.0% 2.7% 34.4%

Naturalized citizens

220,425 10.4% 11.8% 4.3% 24.2%

Lawful permanent residents

391,478 8.5% 10.1% 2.9% 28.5%

Refugees or asylees

66,231 8.6% 11.5% 3.0% 30.3%

Other legal immigrants**

37,930 x x x x

Undocumented aliens**

407,261 8.2% 10.9% 0.3% 30.5%

Native citizens in immigrant HHs

480 69.9% 69.9% 0.0% 69.9%
Native citizen families in California*** 3,390,676 33.7% 34.4% 8.8% 36.7%

New York City

All immigrant families

577,015 5.6% 21.8% 9.8% 42.3%

Naturalized citizens

189,694 7.8% 24.4% 19.1% 47.3%

Lawful permanent residents

333,688 3.4% 14.2% 3.5% 34.4%

Refugees or asylees

52,626 1.7% 20.8% 15.3% 32.3%

Other legal immigrants**

27,852 0.0% 0.2% 0.2% 0.8%

Undocumented aliens**

162,848 3.2% 13.0% 0.4% 14.0%

Native citizen families in New York State***

2,159,440 8.6% 33.5% 17.1% 43.5%

* Low-income non-elderly families have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and they have no members ages 65 or over.
**Other legal and undocumented alien families may include members who are native citizens or who are otherwise qualified to receive public benefits.
*** Comparison group data from the 1999 National Survey of America's Families (NSAF II).
All immigrant data from LANYCIS.
Notes: For definition of family immigration status, see Appendix 2. "x" denotes small sample size.

The classification of families by immigration status was based on the status of the respondent and his/her spouse. If the respondent and spouse did not have the same immigration status, we assigned the family status using a hierarchy, with undocumented alien first, then other legal, refugee/asylee, LPR, naturalized citizen, and, finally, native-born citizen.

In general, low-income immigrant families had lower program participation rates than low-income native citizen families. For example, 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. Immigrant families also had substantially lower participation in TANF than native families.(18) Differences were smaller for Medicaid: 34 percent of low-income immigrant families in Los Angeles had at least one member enrolled, compared to 37 percent of native citizen families in California. In New York City, the rate of Medicaid use among low-income immigrant families was 42 percent versus 44 percent for native citizen families in the state of New York. These findings are consistent with Urban Institute analyses of CPS data for the late 1990s that show steeper declines in noncitizen participation and greater differences between citizen and noncitizen participation for TANF and food stamps than for Medicaid (Fix and Passel 2002).

These participation rates simply show the percentage of families using benefits as a share of low-income families. They do not attempt to measure the percent of eligible people who are enrolled in the programs. For example, the percentages on SSI appear quite low because the denominator includes all low-income families, not just those with members who are elderly or disabled with incomes below the SSI income threshold.

In New York participation rates were generally higher for naturalized citizens and refugees than for legal permanent residents (LPRs) and other noncitizens. Naturalized citizens and refugees there were more likely to have retained eligibility for federal programs, while many LPRs, particularly recent immigrants, lost eligibility. But this was not the case in Los Angeles, where the State of California extended food stamps to post-enactment LPRs. Prior research (Fix and Passel 1999) found that refugees tend to have higher participation levels than LPRs. When they arrive in the United States, resettlement programs help refugees apply for public benefits that meet their immediate basic needs and help them develop the skills necessary for longer-term self-sufficiency through education, training and job placement programs.

As for naturalized citizens, it seems that their citizenship status helps confer eligibility for benefit programs. In the mid-1990s, following the passage of PRWORA, there was a surge in the number of immigrants who applied to naturalize, from 540,000 in 1994 to 1.4 million in 1997, followed by a decline to 760,000 in 1999 (Immigration and Naturalization Service 2001). While most of the surge in naturalization applications was due to a dramatic rise in the number of eligible legal immigrants, some of these immigrants may have naturalized to ensure that they retained eligibility for public benefits.(19) During the mid-1990s, there also was a large increase in the number of naturalized citizens receiving benefits. For instance, between 1994 and 1998 the number of naturalized citizens participating in the Food Stamp Program nearly doubled from 247,000 to 409,000 (and their share of all participants increased from 0.9 to 2 percent), while the number of LPR participants decreased from 1.45 million to 405,000, or from 5 to 2 percent of all participants (Cody and Castner 1999: 27; Castner and Rosso 2000: 20).

In New York and Los Angeles, the survey data reveal some program participation by families that were classified as other legal or undocumented immigrants. The most likely reason is that some of the members of these families, particularly children, were native citizens or permanent residents who were still eligible for benefits. In some cases, undocumented or other legal immigrants may be partially eligible for benefits, such as emergency Medicaid. Another possible explanation is that people misreported either their immigration or program participation status, a problem in any self-reported survey.(20) Finally, there may have been some degree of program error or abuse, in which families participated in programs for which they were not eligible. However, public benefit programs require relatively thorough verification of proper immigration status before providing benefits. Applicants are generally required to submit relevant immigration documents as proof of status. Moreover, welfare offices are required to verify applicants' immigration statuses using the INS's Systematic Alien Verification of Entitlements (SAVE) online database or a similar method.

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