Skip to navigation
Skip to main content
September 1998 Volume 5 Number 9
Immigrants and Welfare
Since January 1993, the number of welfare recipients has fallen by 41 percent, or 5.7 million.<< back
The welfare reforms of 1996 made states responsible for designing and administering programs to assist poor residents; each state received a federal block grant and added state funds to provide cash and other assistance to the poor. By the summer of 1998, several patterns are clear: 1) most states have maintained pre-96 levels of cash benefits; 2) most states permit recipients who work to keep more of their earnings than under old federal regulations; 3) many states have established time limits on receiving cash assistance that are shorter than the federal standard of five years; 4) most states aim to keep poor people from getting on the welfare rolls by, for example, permitting case workers to make loans or provide other assistance; and 5) most states have stiffened sanctions for recipients who fail to seek work. State patterns are available at: http://www.newfederalism.urban.org
Most states continued to provide some welfare benefits to legal immigrants, even though the federal legislation in 1996 permitted them to end such benefits. Nearly all states continue providing federal cash (TANF) and health (Medicaid) benefits to legal immigrants present in the US on August 22, 1996, and they offer these benefits to immigrants in the US after five years of residence. About a third of the states--including the states where most immigrants live--use state funds to provide similar benefits to some new immigrants during the five-year period when federal benefits are denied to new immigrants.
The major impact of 1996 federal welfare reforms has been the loss of food stamps for poor legal immigrants. Some 940,000 legal immigrants lost food stamps in October 1997. States used their funds to restore food stamp benefits to about 250,000 legal immigrants: the elderly, disabled and children. In 1998, federal legislation restored food stamp eligibility for elderly, disabled and children of poor immigrants, and states are deciding whether to use the funds they were spending to provide food stamp benefits to cover additional legal immigrants.
The most recent data on receipt of welfare by immigration status are from the March 1997 CPS, released in April 1998. In California, four percent of US-born residents and seven percent of foreign-born residents received public assistance in 1996. The gap was most pronounced for in-kind benefits--18 percent of the foreign-born, and nine percent of the US-born, received Medicaid; 14 percent of the foreign-born received Food Stamps, compared to four percent of the US-born.
An August 1998 study released by the Urban Institute found that immigrant families in Los Angeles county were not applying for welfare for fear of jeopardizing applications for immigration benefits such as naturalization. The percentage of immigrant-headed households among welfare applicants dropped to eight percent, or 450 a month, in January 1998 from 21 percent, or 1,500 a month, in January 1996. The drop was sharpest for legal immigrants; undocumented immigrant parents continued to apply for welfare benefits on behalf of their US-born children. Los Angeles county in December 1992 reported the immigration status of the heads of households receiving cash assistance: 54 percent were US-born; five percent were naturalized US citizens; and 42 percent were non-citizens. Among the non-citizens, half were unauthorized, although the household probably included a US-born child.
A higher percentage of immigrants than US-born families receive TANF cash assistance and, once on the rolls, the immigrant families tend to receive assistance for longer periods. Administrative data suggest that about two-thirds of the English-speaking white TANF recipients leave the welfare rolls within two years, while two-thirds of the southeast Asian recipients and half of the Hispanic recipients remain on the rolls at least two years.
There are several reasons why immigrants stay on the welfare rolls longer: 1) some of the immigrants are refugees, eligible for TANF assistance upon arrival, they often face significant language, skills and other barriers to obtaining jobs that pay more than assistance incomes; and 2) many immigrants in California with little education have lower earnings and larger families than US-born residents, which increases the value of non-cash welfare assistance such as Medi-Cal.
Poverty. The 1996 welfare reforms and the economic boom have changed the demographic profile of welfare recipients: most US welfare recipients are racial and ethnic minorities. The share of Blacks on the welfare rolls is almost three times their share of US residents and the share of Hispanics in the welfare population is twice their share of US residents. The number of Black families receiving welfare now outnumbers whites and the Hispanic share of the rolls is growing the fastest. Black and Hispanic welfare recipients combined outnumber whites by about 2 to 1. In addition, the remaining caseload is increasingly concentrated in large cities.
The New York Times in July 1998 reported a survey of 15 welfare programs in 14 states and New York City that account for nearly 70 percent of US welfare recipients. In early 1997, Blacks accounted for 37 percent of welfare recipients, and 13 percent of US residents; Hispanics were 22 percent of recipients, and 11 percent of residents. Whites accounted for 35 percent of welfare recipients and 73 percent of US residents. Since peaking in 1994, the number of white families on welfare declined 25 percent, the number of Blacks families fell 17 percent, and the number of Hispanic families dropped nine percent.
The Hispanic share of welfare recipients has almost doubled from 12 percent since 1983. There are several reasons for the rising share of Hispanics in the welfare population. Many live in central cities: 63 percent of Hispanic welfare families lived in central cities, as did 71 percent of Blacks. About 64 percent of Hispanic adults on welfare did not have a high school diploma in March 1994, as did 40 percent of Blacks and 33 percent of whites. About 55 percent of Hispanics on welfare lived in census tracts where 20 percent or more of all residents were poor, as did 64 percent of Blacks and 21 percent of whites.
Finally, 72 percent of Hispanics; 74 percent of Blacks; and 63 percent of whites spent the entire year with a below poverty-level income.
The Census released data August 10, 1998 showing that 30 percent of US residents had incomes below the poverty line for at least two months, but just five percent of residents remained poor for the entire 24-month survey period of 1993-94. In 1994, on average, 15 percent of Americans were poor every month of the year, and about 22 percent were poor for at least two months. About 13 percent had been poor for more than two years. On average, people who were poor at some time in the two-year period were poor for 4.5 months. For more information: http://www.census.gov/prod/3/98pubs/p70-63.pdf
As the number of welfare recipients continues to decline, experts are dividing those who had previously received cash assistance into three groups: a third who already had jobs when the new standards took effect and are now off the rolls; a third who got jobs when the reforms forced them to do so; and a third who have serious problems that will make it difficult for them to find work.
The number of poor young children in the United States rose from an average of 4.4 million to an average of 5.9 million between 1992-1996 and 1979-1983. For more information: http://cpmcnet.columbia.edu/dept/nccp
New York/California. New York decided to make able-bodied immigrants ineligible for food stamps, a policy that was attacked as unconstitutional in an August 6, 1998 suit. New York uses state funds to provide food stamps to legal immigrants who are at least 60 years old, disabled or younger than 18.
California had an average of 3.7 million public assistance recipients of AFDC, SSI, or General Relief in 1997, down from 3.8 million in 1996. About one million families or 2.5 million recipients received AFDC; one million, SSI; and, 150,000, General Relief.
In 1997-98, the number of recipients dropped sharply, due to economic growth and a new work-first culture in welfare offices. Each county has handled welfare reform in a slightly different way. The number of families receiving AFDC/TANF by fiscal year was: 1994-95, 921,011; 1995-96: 902,813; 1996-97, 842,616; and 1997-98, 739,746.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance program, which replaced AFDC, required each state to have at least 25 percent of all families receiving benefits to be working at least 20 hours a week by the end of 1997. California failed to meet this goal, and one reason, according to Eloise Anderson, Director of the California Department of Social Services, is that about 40 percent of the California households receiving cash assistance are headed by immigrants (about 25 percent of all California households are headed by immigrants).
California's plan to move welfare recipients into jobs, CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids), went into effect January 1, 1998. Each county is designing its own welfare-to-work system.
California has a Longitudinal Data Base that includes a 10-percent sample of all residents eligible for Medi-Cal between 1987 and 1996; all persons receiving TANF, SSI and refugee assistance are automatically eligible for Medi-Cal. The LDB can be linked with the Employment Development Department's Unemployment Insurance base-wage file, so that movements between welfare and work in California can be tracked.
An October 1997 survey of 250 public-assistance recipients in Fresno county found that 40 percent had been on assistance for five or more years. Fresno county had 350,000 wage and salary jobs in 1996. Each year, employment increases by some 5,000 jobs, about 1.4 percent. The average unemployment rate in Fresno county in 1997 was 14 percent; each one percent reduction in unemployment means 3,700 more people employed.
Fresno county needs 55,000 additional jobs over the next five years to provide jobs for all CalWorks recipients, and is projected to add 31,000 jobs. In Fresno county in December 1997, there were 5,500 adult refugees receiving cash assistance.
Rachel L. Swarns, "State is sued for denying aid to many poor immigrants," New York Times, August 7, 1998. Jodi Wilgoren, "Immigrants are a boon to economy," Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1998. General Accounting Office. 1998. Welfare Reform: Many States Continue Some Federal or State Benefits for Immigrants. HEHS-98-132. July 31. http://www.gao.gov/