Immigrants Use Less Welfare Than Natives

In the United States, the Welfare Reform in 1996 dramatically changed welfare participation rules by imposing restrictions on immigrant welfare use.

Several studies have been conducted to asses the use of welfare programs by different ethnic groups in the US. An immigrant in the United States consumed 27.3 per cent less welfare than native-born Americans, the public policy think tank, Cato Institute said in its report. The report called for further reforms to reduce expenditure on welfare by building a higher wall around the concept of the ‘welfare state’ than around the country.

According to the report, the average value of welfare benefits per immigrant was $6,063 in 2020, or 27.3 percent less than the $8,335 average for native‐​born Americans.

Immigrants consumed 36.9 percent less Social Security, 26 percent less Medicare, 10.7 percent less Medicaid, 11.5 percent less SNAP benefits, and 87.6 percent less TANF benefits than native‐​born Americans on a per capita basis. However, immigrants consumed 11.4 percent more in SSI benefits than natives, which translates to $19 more than natives on a per capita basis. Immigrants individually also consumed 42.9 percent more WIC benefits than native‐​born Americans, which translates to $7 more than natives per capita.

On the other hand, ssing data from 1995 to 2018, Huang and colleagues investigated the effects of demographic factors, macroeconomic trends, and policies on the welfare participation gap between immigrants and natives in the US.

This study covered 24 years of data, spanning times of economic recessions and recoveries, changes in welfare policy regimes, and policies towards immigrants. The authors found that immigrants’ participation in means-tested programs would have been much less overall and greatly below those of natives, after adjusting for individual characteristics such as educational attainment. This article was published in Population Research and Policy Review, a leading interdisciplinary international journal of population research.

The study also found that business cycles impact immigrant and native welfare participation differently. Immigrant participation in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, and State Children’s Health Insurance Program are more sensitive to the business cycle than native participation, providing some evidence that immigrant “dependence” on safety net programs is temporary and closely linked to the economy.

The lead author, Xiaoning Huang, is a doctoral candidate at Columbia School of Social Work and a fellow at Columbia China Center for Social Policy. The coauthors are Dr. Neeraj Kaushal, professor at Columbia School of Social Work, and Dr. Julia Shu-Huah Wang, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and an associate at Columbia China Center for Social Policy.

On the policy front, the analysis suggested that program eligibility explains only a modest proportion of the overall immigrant-native gap in welfare use. This finding offers an alternate perspective to supplement previous research that has found substantial impacts of policy on welfare use. While the restrictive welfare policies can significantly influence welfare use, the rules are not as consequential as an individual and household characteristics in “explaining” the difference in immigrant and native households’ welfare participation.

These findings underline the limits of restrictive welfare policies, advocate for better social safety net programs to protect immigrants and their children from economic downturns and adverse health events, and support inclusive policies such as DACA and the DREAM Act to invest in immigrants’ human capital development.