NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Women, Immigration and Welfare Reform

May 22, 2002

Both legal and illegal immigrants to United States between 1981 and 1996 were less educated than their predecessors and were more likely to use Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and other welfare programs than were immigrants who arrived before them. They also participated in welfare programs more than native citizens.

This situation led to widespread concern that new immigrants were a fiscal drag on the economy, consuming more than they produced. As a result, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 denied legal immigrants arriving after passage of the law receipt of most federally funded welfare benefits.

A recent study examined the effects of PRWORA and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program which replaced AFDC on the employment, hours of work and marriage rates of three groups of low-educated women: foreign-born citizens, foreign-born non-citizens and native-born citizens.

Some of the findings include:

  • PRWORA encouraged native-born citizens and foreign-born non-citizens to increase their employment and their attachment to the labor market.
  • Among native-born women, it had a larger effect on the work and labor force attachment of the least educated.
  • Among foreign-born non-citizens, it had a larger effect on more recent arrivals.
  • Waivers of federal TANF and AFDC regulations granted to a number of states had no effect on the marriage decisions of native-born and foreign-born citizens.

However, TANF was associated with a decrease in the marriage rates of foreign-born non-citizens.

There was no evidence of the much-publicized "chilling" effect, which anticipated that qualified welfare applicants might be frightened off by the debate and controversy surrounding welfare reform. Instead, actual eligibility for benefits is the more critical determinant of the behavioral response to welfare reform.

Source: Les Picker, "Immigrant and Native Responses to Welfare Reform," NBER Digest, March 2002; based on Robert Kaestner and Neeraj Kaushal, "Immigrant and Native Responses to Welfare Reform," NBER Working Paper No. 8541, October 2001, National Bureau of Economic Research.

For NBER text


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