In 2008, 53 percent of all households headed by an immigrant (legal or illegal) with one or more children under age 18 used at least one welfare program, compared to 36 percent for native households with children. Immigrant use of welfare tends to be much higher than natives for food assistance programs and Medicaid. Use of cash and housing programs tends to be very similar to natives. A large share of the welfare used by immigrants is received on behalf of their U.S.-born children. But even households with children comprised entirely of immigrants still have a welfare use rate of 47 percent.
The above figures come from an analysis of the public use file of the March 2009 Current Population Survey collected by the Census Bureau. The survey asks about use of welfare programs in the calendar year prior to the survey. The eight major welfare programs reported above 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 school lunch, food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Medicaid (health insurance for those with low incomes), public housing, and rent subsidies.
High immigrant welfare use is partly explained by the low education level of many immigrants. Of immigrant households with children, almost one in three is headed by someone who did not graduate high school, compared to one out of ten for native headed households with children. Most of the immigrant households accessing the welfare system have at least one person who worked during 2008. However, because such a large share of immigrants have relatively little education, their incomes tend to be low and they or their children still qualify for one or more welfare programs.
Although most new legal immigrants are barred from using certain welfare programs for the first five years, this provision has only a modest impact on household use rates for several reasons: most immigrants have been in the U.S. for longer than five years; the ban only applies to some programs; some state governments provide welfare to new immigrants with their own money; by becoming citizens, immigrants become eligible for all welfare programs; and perhaps most important is that the U.S.-born children of immigrants (including those born to illegal immigrants) are automatically eligible for all welfare programs at birth.
Examining welfare use by household is very common among researchers. See for example figures 20-1, 20-2, and 21-3 in Census Bureau publication “Profile of the Foreign-Born Population” and “Immigration and the Welfare State: Immigrant Participation in Means-Tested Entitlement Programs” by George Borjas and Lynette Hilton.