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    Welfare Use by Immigrant Households

    Welfare Use by Immigrant Households with Children: A Look at Cash, Medicaid, Housing, and Food Programs
    By Steven A. Camarota
    April 2011
    Backgrounders and Reports

    Download a pdf of this Backgrounder


    Steven A. Camarota is the Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies.


    Thirteen years after welfare reform, the share of immigrant-headed households (legal and illegal) with a child (under age 1 using at least one welfare program continues to be very high. This is partly due to the large share of immigrants with low levels of education and their resulting low incomes — not their legal status or an unwillingness to work. The major welfare programs examined in this report include cash assistance, food assistance, Medicaid, and public and subsidized housing.

    Among the findings:

    •In 2009 (based on data collected in 2010), 57 percent of households headed by an immigrant (legal and illegal) with children (under 1 used at least one welfare program, compared to 39 percent for native households with children.

    •Immigrant households’ use of welfare tends to be much higher than natives for food assistance programs and Medicaid. Their use of cash and housing programs tends to be similar to native households.

    •A large share of the welfare used by immigrant households with children is received on behalf of their U.S.-born children, who are American citizens. But even households with children comprised entirely of immigrants (no U.S.-born children) still had a welfare use rate of 56 percent in 2009.

    •Immigrant households with children used welfare programs at consistently higher rates than natives, even before the current recession. In 2001, 50 percent of all immigrant households with children used at least one welfare program, compared to 32 percent for natives.

    •Households with children with the highest welfare use rates are those headed by immigrants from the Dominican Republic (82 percent), Mexico and Guatemala (75 percent), and Ecuador (70 percent). Those with the lowest use rates are from the United Kingdom (7 percent), India (19 percent), Canada (23 percent), and Korea (25 percent).

    •The states where immigrant households with children have the highest welfare use rates are Arizona (62 percent); Texas, California, and New York (61 percent); Pennsylvania (59 percent); Minnesota and Oregon (56 percent); and Colorado (55 percent).

    •We estimate that 52 percent of households with children headed by legal immigrants used at least one welfare program in 2009, compared to 71 percent for illegal immigrant households with children. Illegal immigrants generally receive benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children.

    •Illegal immigrant households with children primarily use food assistance and Medicaid, making almost no use of cash or housing assistance. In contrast, legal immigrant households tend to have relatively high use rates for every type of program.

    •High welfare use by immigrant-headed households with children is partly explained by the low education level of many immigrants. Of households headed by an immigrant who has not graduated high school, 80 percent access the welfare system, compared to 25 percent for those headed by an immigrant who has at least a bachelor’s degree.

    •An unwillingness to work is not the reason immigrant welfare use is high. The vast majority (95 percent) of immigrant households with children had at least one worker in 2009. But their low education levels mean that more than half of these working immigrant households with children still accessed the welfare system during 2009.

    •If we exclude the primary refugee-sending countries, the share of immigrant households with children using at least one welfare program is still 57 percent.

    •Welfare use tends to be high for both new arrivals and established residents. In 2009, 60 percent of households with children headed by an immigrant who arrived in 2000 or later used at least one welfare program; for households headed by immigrants who arrived before 2000 it was 55 percent.

    •For all households (those with and without children), the use rates were 37 percent for households headed by immigrants and 22 percent for those headed by natives.

    •Although most new legal immigrants are barred from using some welfare for the first five years, this provision has only a modest impact on household use rates because most immigrants have been in the United States for longer than five years; the ban only applies to some programs; some states provide welfare to new immigrants with their own money; by becoming citizens immigrants become eligible for all welfare programs; and perhaps most importantly, the U.S.-born children of immigrants (including those born to illegal immigrants) are automatically awarded American citizenship and are therefore eligible for all welfare programs at birth.

    •The eight major welfare programs examined in this report are SSI (Supplemental Security Income for low income elderly and disabled), TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), WIC (Women, Infants, and Children food program), free/reduced school lunch, food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Medicaid (health insurance for those with low incomes), public housing, and rent subsidies.

    Concern that immigrants may become a burden on society has been a long-standing issue in the United States. As far back as colonial times there were restrictions on the arrival of people who might become a burden on the community. This report analyzes survey data collected by the Census Bureau from 2002 to 2009 to examine use of welfare programs by immigrant and native households, particularly those with children. The Current Population Survey (CPS) asks respondents about their use of welfare programs in the year prior to the survey,1 so we are examining self-reported welfare use rates from 2001 to 2009. The findings show that more than half of immigrant-headed households with children use at least one major welfare program, compared to about one-third of native-headed households. The primary reason immigrant households with children tend to have higher overall rates is their much higher use of food assistance programs and Medicaid; use of cash assistance and housing programs tends to be very similar to native households.

    Why Study Immigrant Welfare Use?

    Use of welfare programs by immigrants is important for two primary reasons. First, it is one measure of their impact on American society. If immigrants have high use rates it could be an indication that they are creating a net fiscal burden for the country. Welfare programs comprise a significant share of federal, and even state, expenditures. Total costs for the programs examined in this study were $517 billion in fiscal year 2008.2 Moreover, those who receive welfare tend to pay little or no income tax. If use of welfare programs is considered a problem and if immigrant use of those programs is thought to be high, then it is an indication that immigration or immigrant policy needs to be a adjusted. Immigration policy is concerned with the number of immigrants allowed into the country and the selection criteria used for admission. It is also concerned with the level of resources devoted to controlling illegal immigration. Immigrant policy, on the other hand, is concerned with how we treat immigrants who are legally admitted to the country, such as welfare eligibility, citizenship requirements, and assimilation efforts.

    The second reason to examine welfare use is that it can provide insight into how immigrants are doing in the United States. Accessing welfare programs can be seen as an indication that immigrants are having a difficult time in the United States. Or perhaps that some immigrants are assimilating into the welfare system. Thus, welfare use is both a good way of measuring immigration’s impact on American society and immigrants’ adaptation to life in the United States.


    The information for this Backgrounder is drawn from the public-use files of the CPS. We use the CPS beginning in 2002 because in that year the survey was redesigned and re-weighted by the Census Bureau, including additional questions about use of welfare programs. The survey identifies what the Census Bureau describes as the native-born and foreign-born populations. The foreign-born are defined as persons living in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth. In this report we use the terms foreign-born and immigrant synonymously. Immigrants or the foreign-born include naturalized American citizens, legal permanent residents (green card holders), illegal immigrants, and people on long-term temporary visas such as students or guest workers. It does not include those born abroad of American parents or those born in outlying territories of the United States, such as Puerto Rico, who are considered U.S.-born or native-born. We also use the terms native, native-born, and U.S.-born synonymously. Prior research indicates that Census Bureau data like the CPS capture the overwhelming majority of both legal and illegal immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics estimates that the undercount of immigrants in Census Bureau data is about 5.5 percent. Most of this undercount is of the illegal immigrant population. The undercount of illegal immigrants specifically is thought by DHS to be 10 percent.3

    The CPS collected in March of each year oversamples minorities and is considered one of the best sources of information on immigrants. The March CPS is also referred to as the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey (ASES). The ASES includes questions on use of major welfare programs and is one of the only sources of information available on differences in immigrant and native use of welfare programs. When we examine use rates by state we combine two years of data (e.g., 2009 and 2010) to get more statistically robust estimates for smaller states.

    The eight major welfare programs examined in this report are SSI (Supplemental Security Income for low income elderly and disabled), TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), WIC (Women, Infants, and Children food program), free/reduced school lunch, food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Medicaid (health insurance for those with low incomes), public housing, and rent subsidies.4 These programs constitute the core of the nation’s welfare system.

    Why Welfare Use by Households with Children? We concentrate on welfare use for households with children because the nation’s welfare programs are designed specifically to provide assistance to low-income households with children. However, we also provide statistics for all households and for those without children. Examining welfare use by household means that we are primarily comparing welfare use by immigrants and their young children to welfare use by natives and their young children. Some advocates for expansive immigration argue that this type of analysis understates the benefits of immigration because some day the children who receive welfare may pay back that money as taxpaying adults. But, they argue, this payback is not counted because once these U.S.-born children reach adulthood they are counted as natives. There are a number problems with this argument. First, as we will see, households comprised of only immigrants, with no U.S.-born children, have similarly high use rates. Thus, the presence of U.S.-born children does not explain the high overall welfare use of immigrant households.

    Second, a large body of prior research has examined the fiscal impacts of immigration, including their use of public services by household. Perhaps the largest study of its kind was done by the National Research Council in 1997. The NRC states, “Since the household is the primary unit through which public services are consumed and taxes paid, it is the most appropriate unit as a general rule and is recommended for static analysis.
    If you ain't mad, you ain't payin' attention = Terry Anderson.

  2. #2
    Senior Member JohnnyYuma's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    The last time I knew, Clinton was supposed to have limited the number of years recipients could be on welfare, to two years. 5 years is beyond that limit of two years.
    The Lord is my Sheperd, I shall not want.

  3. #3
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