Posted on December 20, 2023

Welfare Use by Immigrants and the U.S.-Born

Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler, Center for Immigration Studies, December 19, 2023

This report is based on newly released data from the 2022 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Analysis of this data shows both immigrants and the U.S.-born make extensive use of means-tested anti-poverty programs, with immigrant households significantly more likely to receive benefits. This is primarily because the American welfare system is designed in large part to help low-income families with children, which describes a large share of immigrants. The ability of immigrants, including illegal immigrants, to receive welfare benefits on behalf of U.S.-born citizen children is a key reason why restrictions on welfare use for new legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants, are relatively ineffective.

Among the findings:

  • The 2022 SIPP indicates that 54 percent of households headed by immigrants — naturalized citizens, legal residents, and illegal immigrants — used one or more major welfare program. This compares to 39 percent for U.S.-born households.
  • The rate is 59 percent for non-citizen households (e.g. green card holders and illegal immigrants).
  • Compared to households headed by the U.S.-born, immigrant-headed households have especially high use of food programs (36 percent vs. 25 percent for the U.S.-born), Medicaid (37 percent vs. 25 percent for the U.S.-born), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (16 percent vs. 12 percent for the U.S.-born).
  • Our best estimate is that 59 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants, also called the undocumented, use at least one major program. We have no evidence this is due to fraud. Among legal immigrants we estimate the rate is 52 percent.
  • Illegal immigrants can receive welfare on behalf of U.S.-born children, and illegal immigrant children can receive school lunch/breakfast and WIC directly. A number of states provide Medicaid to some illegal adults and children, and a few provide SNAP. Several million illegal immigrants also have work authorization (e.g. DACA, TPS, and some asylum applicants) allowing receipt of the EITC.
  • No one program explains the higher overall use of welfare by immigrants. For example, excluding the extensively used but less budgetary costly school lunch/breakfast program, along with the WIC nutrition program, still shows 46 percent of all immigrant households and 33 percent of U.S.-born households use at least one of the remaining programs.
  • The presence of extended family or unrelated individuals does not explain immigrants’ higher welfare use, as the vast majority of immigrant households are nuclear families. Further, of immigrant households comprised of only a nuclear family, 49 percent use the welfare system compared to 35 percent of nuclear family U.S.-born households.
  • The high welfare use of immigrant households is not explained by an unwillingness to work. In fact, 83 percent of all immigrant households and 94 percent of illegal-headed households have at least one worker, compared to 73 percent of U.S.-born households.
  • Immigrants’ higher welfare use relative to the U.S.-born is partly, but only partly, explained by the larger share with modest education levels, their resulting lower incomes, and the greater percentage of immigrant households with children.
  • Immigrant households without children, as well as those with high incomes and those headed by immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree, tend to be more likely to use welfare than their U.S.-born counterparts.
  • Most new legal immigrants are barred from most programs, as are illegal immigrants, but this has a modest impact primarily because: 1) Immigrants can receive benefits on behalf of U.S.-born children; 2) the bar does not apply to all programs, nor does it apply to non-citizen children in some cases; 3) most legal immigrants have lived here long enough to qualify for welfare; 4) some states provide welfare to otherwise ineligible immigrants on their own; 5) by naturalizing, immigrants gain full welfare eligibility.