NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Immigrant Use of Welfare Programs

March 25, 2003

Immigrant use of cash assistance and food stamps has declined significantly since passage of the 1996 welfare reform law, according to a new report from the Center for Immigration Studies.

However, taxpayers have not saved a significant amount from the decline in use of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and food stamps because those declines have been almost entirely offset by increases in the costs of providing Medicaid to immigrant households. Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program mainly for those elderly and disabled who do not qualify for Social Security benefits, is one of the four major welfare programs considered in the report.

Among the report's findings:

  • In 1996, 22 percent of immigrant-headed households used at least one major welfare program, compared to 15 percent of native households.
  • After declining in the late 1990s, welfare use rebounded, with 23 percent of immigrant households receiving benefits compared to 15 percent of native households in 2001.
  • The average value of benefits and payments received by immigrant households has changed little and remains about $2,000 -- 50 percent above that of natives.

The persistently high rate of welfare use by immigrant households stems from their heavy reliance on Medicaid, which has actually risen modestly. The 1996 welfare reform law barred many legal immigrants from using certain welfare programs.

  • Thus immigrant use of TANF has fallen significantly, from a little under 6 percent in 1996 to slightly over 2 percent in 2001, and food stamp use has also declined from about 10 percent to 6 percent.
  • These rates are now only modestly above those of natives.

Due to continuing legal and illegal immigration, however, the numbers using at least one of the welfare programs has increased (See Figure I.).

Source: Steven A. Camarota, "Back Where We Started: An Examination of Trends in Welfare Use Since Welfare Reform," Backgrounder, March 2003, Center for Immigration Studies.

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