A new study by the Center for Immigration Studies is the first in recent years to examine immigrant (legal and illegal) and native welfare use based on the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). The SIPP provides the most accurate picture of welfare participation. The survey shows immigrant households use welfare at significantly higher rates than native households, even higher than indicated by other Census surveys. Welfare includes Medicaid, cash, food, and housing programs.

View the entire 53-page report here.

“If immigration is supposed to benefit the country, then immigrant welfare use should be much lower than native use,” said Steven Camarota the Center’s Director of Research and the report’s author. “However,” he continued, “two decades after welfare reform tried to curtail immigrant welfare use, immigrant households are using most programs at higher rates than natives. The low-skill level of many immigrants means that although most work, many also access welfare programs. If we continue to allow large numbers of less-educated immigrants to settle in the country, then immigrant welfare use will remain high.”

Among the findings:

In 2012, 51 percent of households headed by an immigrant (legal or illegal) reported that they used at least one welfare program during the year, compared to 30 percent of native households.

  • Welfare use is high for both new arrivals and long-time residents. Of households headed by immigrants who have been in the country for more than two decades, 48 percent access welfare.
  • No single program explains immigrants’ higher overall welfare use. For example, not counting subsidized school lunch, welfare use is still 46 percent for immigrants and 28 percent for natives. Not counting Medicaid, welfare use is 44 percent for immigrants and 26 percent for natives.
  • Immigrant households have much higher use of food programs (40 percent vs. 22 percent for natives) and Medicaid (42 percent vs. 23 percent). Immigrant use of cash programs is somewhat higher than natives (12 percent vs. 10 percent) and immigrant use of housing programs is similar to natives.
  • Welfare use varies among immigrant groups. Households headed by immigrants from Central America and Mexico (73 percent), the Caribbean (51 percent), and Africa (48 percent) have the highest overall welfare use. Those from East Asia (32 percent), Europe (26 percent), and South Asia (17 percent) have the lowest.
  • Many immigrants struggle to support their children, and a large share of welfare is received on behalf of U.S.-born children. However, even immigrant households without children have significantly higher welfare use than native households without children–30 percent vs. 20 percent.
  • The welfare system is designed to help low-income workers, especially those with children, and this describes many immigrant households. In 2012, 51 percent of immigrant households with one or more workers accessed one or more welfare programs, as did 28 percent of working native households.
  • The large share of immigrants with low levels of education and resulting low incomes partly explains their high use rates. In 2012, 76 percent of households headed by an immigrant who had not graduated high school used one or more welfare programs, as did 63 percent of households headed by an immigrant with only a high school education.
  • The high rates of immigrant welfare use are not entirely explained by their lower education levels. Households headed by college-educated immigrants have significantly higher welfare use than households headed by college-educated natives–26 percent vs. 13 percent.
  • In the four top immigrant-receiving states, use of welfare by immigrant households is significantly higher than that of native households: California (55 percent vs. 30 percent), New York (59 percent vs. 33 percent), Texas (57 percent vs. 34 percent), and Florida (42 percent vs. 28 percent).

Conclusion: The high rate of welfare use associated with immigrants may seem surprising, given the restrictions on their eligibility. But the limits only apply to some programs; most legal immigrants have been in the country long enough to qualify for welfare; the restrictions often do not apply to children; states often provide welfare to new immigrants on their own; naturalizing makes immigrants eligible for all programs; and, most important, im­migrants (including illegal immigrants) can receive benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children, who are awarded U.S. citizenship at birth.

Illegal immigrants are included in the Census Bureau data used in this analysis. In a forthcoming report, we will estimate welfare use for immigrants by legal status. However, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of immigrant households using welfare are headed by legal immigrants.

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