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Welfare Use by Immigrant Households with Children

April 1, 2011
By Steven A. Camarota

In this Backgrounder & Report for CIS looks at thirteen years after welfare reform, and the share of immigrant-headed households (legal and illegal) with a child (under age 18) using at least one welfare program.

social security cards

In this Backgrounder & Report for CIS looks at thirteen years after welfare reform, and the share of immigrant-headed households (legal and illegal) with a child (under age 18) using at least one welfare program.  This continues to be very high, and 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 18) 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.
Article Tags
Entitlements Immigration