Steven A. Camarota | CIS
An Analysis of Medicaid, cash, food, and housing programs
This report is a companion to a recent report published by the Center for Immigration Studies looking at welfare use by all immigrant households, based on Census Bureau data.
This report separates legal and illegal immigrant households and estimates welfare use using the same Census Bureau data as that study.
This analysis shows that legal immigrant households make extensive use of most welfare programs, while illegal immigrant households primarily benefit from food programs and Medicaid through their U.S.-born children. Low levels of education — not legal status — is the main reason immigrant welfare use is high.
Among the findings:
An estimated 49 percent of households headed by legal immigrants used one or more welfare programs in 2012, compared to 30 percent of households headed by natives.
Households headed by legal immigrants have higher use rates than native households overall and for cash programs (14 percent vs. 10 percent), food programs (36 percent vs. 22 percent), and Medicaid (39 percent vs. 23 percent). Use of housing programs is similar.
Legal immigrant households account for three-quarters of all immigrant households accessing one or more welfare programs.
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Less-educated legal immigrants make extensive use of every type of welfare program, including cash, food, Medicaid, and housing.
The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants have modest levels of education; therefore, the high use of welfare associated with less-educated legal immigrants indicates that legalization would likely increase welfare costs, particularly for cash and housing programs.
Restrictions on new legal immigrants’ access to welfare have not prevented them from accessing programs at high rates because restrictions often apply to only a modest share of immigrants at any one time, some programs are not restricted, there are numerous exceptions and exemptions, and some provisions are entirely unenforced. Equally important, immigrants, including those illegally in the country, can receive welfare on behalf of their U.S.-born children.
This report is a companion analysis to “Welfare Use by Immigrant and Native Households: An Analysis of Medicaid, Cash, Food, and Housing Programs”, recently published by the Center for Immigration Studies. That report examines welfare use for all immigrant-headed households, regardless of legal status, using the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). This analysis uses information in the survey to distinguish legal and illegal immigrants to estimate welfare use by legal status. The findings show that, relative to natives, welfare use is high for both legal and illegal immigrant households.
As discussed at length in our earlier study, there is a significant body of research showing that the SIPP provides the most accurate picture of welfare use of any Census Bureau survey. Using the SIPP data to estimate welfare use based on the legal status of the household head shows that both legal and illegal immigrant households make extensive use of the nation’s welfare system. Legal immigrant households have higher welfare use than native households for cash, food, and Medicaid, while illegal immigrant households have higher use than natives for food and Medicaid, but lower use for cash and housing programs.
In this report we use the terms immigrant and foreign-born synonymously. The foreign-born include all individuals who were not U.S. citizens at birth. We use the term illegal immigrant to describe those in the country without authorization; some publications refer to these individuals as illegal aliens or as undocumented immigrants.
Data Source. Our prior publication, “Welfare Use by Immigrant and Native Households: An Analysis of Medicaid, Cash, Food, and Housing Programs”, provides a detailed discussion of why the SIPP produces more accurate estimates of welfare use than other Census Bureau surveys.1 That report also includes a detailed discussion of the structure of the survey, including how the data is collected and weighted.2
Programs Examined. Like our prior analysis, the major welfare programs examined in this report are Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Women, Infants, and Children food program (WIC), free or subsidized school lunch, food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP), Medicaid, and public housing and rent subsidies.3
Estimating Illegal Immigrants. There is a significant body of research showing that illegal immigrants respond to Census Bureau surveys. The Department of Homeland Security uses the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) as the basis for estimating the size of the illegal immigrant population. DHS estimates that 90 percent of the illegal immigrant population is included in the ACS.4 The Pew Hispanic Center uses the Current Population Survey and the ACS to estimate the size of the illegal immigrant population based on the same assumption that about 90 percent of illegal immigrants are included in the survey.5 The Center for Immigration Studies has also used these data sources to estimate the illegal immigrant population.6
Researchers also have estimated the legal status of immigrants in the SIPP and found that it produces estimates of the illegal immigrant population similar to estimates based on other data.7 One advantage of the SIPP over other Census Bureau surveys is that it includes two questions on immigration status. First, non-citizens are asked if they came to the United States as lawful permanent residents (LPRs); and second, it asks those who did not come as LPRs if they have changed their status since they arrived.8 The overwhelming majority of these non-LPRs are likely illegal immigrants.9
There were 2.1 million households headed by non-citizen, non-LPRs in the 2012 SIPP. We estimate there should be a total of 3.4 million households headed by illegal immigrants in the 2012 SIPP.10 In a number of cases, respondents did not provide a response to the migration variables and these values were imputed (filled in) by the Census Bureau using a complex algorithm.11 Our analysis focused on these imputed cases when trying to identify the illegal immigrant population that cannot be identified using the migration variables. To identify those illegal immigrants, we use citizenship status, year of arrival in the United States, age, region of origin, educational attainment, sex, receipt of some welfare programs, and marital status. We use these variables to assign probabilities to each respondent. Those individuals who have a cumulative probability that makes them likely to be illegal immigrants are assigned that status, the remaining non-citizen population as well as naturalized citizens are the legal immigrant population.12
By design, this estimate is meant to match the characteristics of the estimates published by DHS by age, duration of stay, and region of origin.13 However, no estimate of the illegal immigrant population is definitive and there is always uncertainty.14 Although we report confidence intervals in this report for households by legal status, these intervals reflect uncertainty in the survey data itself and do not reflect the added uncertainty associated with imputing legal status.
It is also worth noting that households headed by the foreign-born can be only headed by a legal or illegal immigrant. This means that if our estimate of the size of the illegal immigrant population is too high, then our estimate of the legal immigrant is correspondingly too low. By the same logic, if our estimate of the illegal immigrant population is too low, then the size of the legal immigrant population is too high. The same logic applies to welfare use rates. For example, 51 percent (8.3 million) of legal and illegal immigrants in the SIPP reported using one or more welfare programs in 2012. All of the results reported in this analysis total back to these numbers. There is no imputation of welfare use in this report. The analysis relies entirely on what each household reported in the SIPP.
Immigrant Eligibility for Welfare. The appendix to the companion report includes a long discussion of the regulations and laws covering immigrant welfare eligibility. As it makes clear, the 1996 welfare reform changes and other laws are designed to limit immigrant reliance on welfare programs — particularly legal immigrants, since illegal immigrants have been barred from welfare for a long time. These policies include the long-standing “public charge” doctrine that bars entry of immigrants likely to need welfare and the deportation of those who become dependent on it, a five-year bar on most new legal immigrants accessing welfare, and a “deeming” requirement that sponsors’ income be considered before welfare can be received.
However, as the appendix in our prior analysis makes clear, these restrictions do not prevent immigrant households from making extensive use of welfare programs because restrictions often apply to only a modest share of legal immigrants at any one time, some programs are not restricted, there are numerous exceptions and exemptions, and some provisions are entirely unenforced. Equally important, immigrants, including those illegally in the country, can receive welfare on behalf of their U.S.-born children. As a result, both our prior report and this one show that immigrant households make extensive use of the nation’s welfare system, often at significantly higher rates than native households.
The Two-Variables Method. The far right column in Table 1 reports welfare use for illegal immigrant households using only the two migration variables discussed in the methodology section of this report. Although there is an undercount of illegal immigrants using this method, the table shows that there is simply no question that households headed by illegal immigrants access a good deal of welfare. In fact, illegal immigrants’ use of some programs is quite high. For example, using just the two migration variables, 30 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants are on food stamps and 56 percent have at least one person on Medicaid. Any suggestion that there are no welfare costs associated with illegal immigrants is incorrect. The SIPP shows that households headed by individuals with a very high probability of being in the country illegally make significant use of food programs and Medicaid.
CONTINUE TO FULL REPORT: Center for Immigration Studies
Steven A. Camarota is the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.