The Food Stamp Program Rewards Households with Illegal Aliens

By David North, February 3, 2012

Readers, let us immerse ourselves in the convoluted language and thinking of the immigration policy world.

You know, where "parole" is a good thing (you can, despite your apparent disqualifications, enter the country), and where "voluntary departure," which might sound positive actually means that you have to leave, albeit without shackles.

Similarly, the double negative verdict of "cancellation of removal" is good news, because it means you can stay here (though you probably should have been thrown out).

In this world-turned-upside-down context, let's look at the eligibility rules for Food Stamps, rules that in 46 of the 50 states mean that the U.S. government rewards a household for having an illegal immigrant within it.

As humorist Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.

Such households have a mix of illegals (often parents) and citizens (usually kids); only the citizens are nominally eligible for the benefits of the program, but if groceries purchased by Food Stamps are on the dining room table, the common-sense assumption is that all members of the family will benefit from it.

Yes, all else being equal, a low-income household with one or more illegal aliens in it, is more likely to get Food Stamps than a household with similar income with all members being legally present. In another, related scenario both families are eligible, both have equal incomes, but the one with an illegal alien member seems to get a larger allotment.

How can that be?

Well the Food Stamp program (now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is, appropriately, income-tested; if the household has too much income, nobody in it gets any Food Stamps. There are nuances, of course, but if the household of four's gross income is less than $29,064, for example, it is, all else being equal, eligible for Food Stamps. If the household size is smaller, the cut-off is lower, and vice-versa. (The calculation of exact the size of the monthly allotment is too complex to be discussed here.)

Ah, but how does the U.S. Department of Agriculture define "income" in this setting?

There's the rub. The rule in 46 of the 50 states is that if one of the members is illegally present in a household of four, for instance, then the gross income of the household is reduced by a fourth for Food Stamp eligibility purposes. So, if there are two households with actual gross incomes of, say, $36,000 a year, each with four members, and one consists of nothing but legal residents, and one has one illegal plus three legals, this is how the eligibility would work out:

    Four legals, with income of $36,000 a year – NOT eligible for Food Stamps.

    Three legals + one illegal with household "income" calculated at $27,000 a year - BINGO – eligible for Food Stamps.

In addition to the question of eligibility vs. non-eligibility for Food Stamps of these mixed households, there is the question of the size of the monthly grant. According to an article in The Kansas Reporter the matter is before the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), and one of its executives was quoted as saying:

As a result an ineligible household of four, on average, could bring in $908 more in income and qualify for the same food stamp benefits, Michelle Schroeder, SRS director of public policy told House Appropriations Committee members.

My notion is that Ms. Schroeder, when saying "ineligible household of four," meant a household of four composed of a mix of citizens and illegal aliens, because households consisting of only illegal aliens are not eligible for any benefits. I also assume that the $908 relates to gross household monthly income.

States have an option to include all income from illegals when calculating Food Stamp eligibility, as Kansas and three others (Arizona, Nebraska, and Utah) have done. Ms. Schroeder was advocating that Kansas continue with its tighter regulations.

Critics of these regulations say that they deprive U.S. citizen children with one or more illegal alien parents of the benefits of the Food Stamp programs. People on the other side of the issue think it inappropriate that the loose rules in 46 of the states make it easier for households containing illegal aliens to secure benefits than all-citizen households with identical incomes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives the states the option of which approach to use.

The question of Food Stamps for these mixed households has a long, and to me, bizarre history. I started looking at these matters about 30 years ago when I persuaded the Ford Foundation to give me a little grant to examine the relationship between immigration and income transfer policies.

What I found about Food Stamps and illegal aliens was this: Congress passed legislation in 1977 denying illegal aliens Food Stamp benefits. In 1979 the Department of Agriculture's regulations, based on the 1977 law, said that "the income and resources of an ineligible alien living in a household shall not be considered in determining eligibility or level of benefits of the household", a huge boon to the illegals.

The next year, in the 1980 Food Stamp Amendments Congress voted to overrule the regulations, but that did not go into effect until Agriculture issued implementing regulations, which it did on January 16, 1981.

Days later the incoming Reagan Administration suspended all the pending Carter-era regulations, thus giving illegal aliens a substantial break on Food Stamps for the next 15 months. Only on April 23, 1982, did the Reagan administration undo its earlier error and allow the implementation of the Carter regulations.

A couple of years later I was working with the Colorado State Food Stamp program at a time when Richard Lamm (D) was governor. I found, on arriving, that while illegal aliens were not supposed to get these benefits there was nothing on the application form that indicated place of birth, nor was there any technique for checking with INS on applicant eligibility. We got the forms changed and arranged for the state's Food Stamp authorities to plug into an early version of E-Verify as to the immigration status of the applicants.

Sometime later the nationwide regulations were changed, again, creating the proportionate downward income-adjustment policy; at least the proportional rule, now in effect, is better than the pre-1982 total ban on all income from illegals in the benefit formula.

The continuing ability of the mass-migration people to manipulate the Food Stamp program rules in this manner is both impressive and depressing.