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High Welfare Use by US Immigrants

  • Published: 2011-04-05 : Author: Center for Immigration Studies
  • Synopsis: Data show the share of immigrant-headed households legal and illegal with children using at least one welfare program continues to be very high.

Main Document

Study Finds High Welfare Use by Immigrants - 57% of Immigrant Households with Children Receive Welfare.

Census Bureau data show that the share of immigrant-headed households (legal and illegal) with children (under age 18) 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.

The 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, Medicaid (health insurance for those with low incomes), public housing, and rent subsidies.

The report entitled: "Welfare Use by Immigrant Households with Children: A Look at Cash, Medicaid, Housing, and Food Programs," is authored by Steven A. Camarota, the Center's Director of Research, and available at

Among the findings:

Based on the latest data available, from 2009, 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 with children tend to use food assistance programs and Medicaid at much higher rates than native households with children. Use of cash and housing programs tends to be similar to natives.

A large share of the welfare used by immigrant households with children is received on behalf of U.S.-born citizen children. But even households with children that were comprised entirely of immigrants (i.e., all the children were born abroad) still had a welfare use rate of 56 percent.

Households with children with the highest rates of welfare use are those headed by immigrants from the Dominican Republic (82 percent), and Mexico and Guatemala (75 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).

The Center estimates 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 only 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 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.

The vast majority (95 percent) of immigrant households with children had at least one worker in 2009. But their low education levels and resulting low incomes mean that more than half of these working immigrant households with children still accessed the welfare system during 2009.

Excluding refugees, 57 percent of immigrant households with children access welfare.

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.

Most new legal immigrants are barred from using some welfare for the first five years. But this provision has only a modest impact on household use rates because most immigrants have been in the country longer than five years; the ban applies only to some programs; some states provide welfare to new immigrants on their own; by naturalizing, immigrants become eligible for all programs; and most important, the U.S.-born children of immigrants (including those of illegal immigrants) are American citizens, and are eligible for all programs at birth.

Policy Discussion: Most immigrants come to the United States to work. In fact, immigrant households with children are somewhat more likely to have at least one worker than native households with children. However, the relatively low education level of many immigrants means that a majority of working immigrant households still access the welfare system, particularly non-cash programs. About one-third of immigrant households with children are headed by someone who has not graduated high school, compared to one out of ten native households. This means giving businesses access to large numbers of less-educated workers can come at a significant cost to taxpayers.

The argument that newly-arrived legal immigrants or illegal immigrants are barred from most programs can be misleading. It does not reflect the way the welfare system actually works, especially non-cash programs. It is also a mistake to compare today's immigrants with those from 100 years ago during the last great immigration wave, when such programs did not exist. Our discussion of this issue should reflect the fact that some spending on welfare is a part of every advanced industrial democracy, including our own. Trying to bar immigrants and their children from using welfare after they have arrived is very difficult in practice and of questionable fairness. If we are concerned about this problem, it would make more sense to select immigrants in the future who are less likely to need taxpayer assistance in providing for their children. Moving to a system that selects immigrants based on their education levels would be one way of doing this.

Data Source: Data for this analysis comes from the March 2002 to 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS) collected by the Census Bureau, also referred to as the Annual Social and Economic Supplement. All welfare figures are based on self-reporting in the CPS. This report uses the term "immigrant" to mean all persons in the country who were not U.S. citizens at birth. Unless otherwise indicated, it includes both legal and illegal immigrants. The Census Bureau refers to these individuals as "foreign born." Most research on immigrant welfare use has focused on households because eligibility for welfare is based on total family or household income, not individual income. As a National Research Council report on the subject observed, "the household is the primary unit through which public services are consumed."

The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent research institute that examines the impact of immigration on the United States.

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