The Urban Institute's Recent Welfare Study: a Swing and a Miss

By Dan Cadman on May 28, 2019

The Urban Institute has published a study, "One in Seven Adults in Immigrant Families Reported Avoiding Public Benefit Programs in 2018", purporting to show how rules recently promulgated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) are harming "immigrant families".

Unfortunately, any careful reader will be forced to ask whether the survey on which the report was based wasn't deliberately constructed to reach a desired result.

By way of background, those rules were designed to put teeth back into the "public charge" provisions of the immigration laws. These provisions render aliens ineligible to legally and permanently immigrate to the United States if they are likely to become a public charge, i.e., use social service benefits such as public housing, welfare, Medicaid, Social Security disability, etc. The reason is pretty self-evident: if we as a nation were to permit each and every immigrant unlimited access to such programs, without ever having contributed to them through taxes, payroll deductions or the like, we would bankrupt the programs in short order. Many of them, Social Security being the prime example, already teeter on the edge of insolvency.

I used the phrase "put teeth back into" public charge enforcement because one of the things the law and regulations have required for many years is that immigrants' sponsors sign a document under oath accepting financial liability for the care and well-being of those whom they petition to bring to the U.S. Unfortunately, actually obliging those sponsors to make good on their oaths fell by the wayside some time ago, until this relatively recent resurgent effort to turn that around, headed by USCIS chief Francis Cissna – and, more recently, with a similar effort by Dr. Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development who ran into a firestorm at a House Congressional hearing as a result.

One suspects that The Urban Institute study is one more way of using "empirical" data to shame the nation into feeling bad about these efforts. For instance, the abstract that accompanies the report tells us, among other things, that:

  • About one in seven adults in immigrant families (13.7 percent) reported "chilling effects," in which the respondent or a family member did not participate in a noncash government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking future green card This figure was even higher, 20.7 percent, among adults in low-income immigrant families...
  • Though the proposed rule would only directly affect adults who do not yet have a green card (i.e., lawful permanent residence), we observed chilling effects in families with various mixes of immigration and citizenship statuses, including 7 percent of adults in families where all noncitizen members had green cards and 9.3 percent of those in families where all foreign-born members were naturalized citizens.
  • Hispanic adults in immigrant families were more than twice as likely (20.6 percent) as non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic nonwhite adults in immigrant families (8.5 percent and 0 percent, respectively) to report chilling effects in their families.

The problem, though, is that the study is deeply suspect. I will put aside the methodology used to determine the actual immigration status of the participants in the study, although it too may be suspect if it relies on nothing more than word-of-mouth response from those participants. But consider these other points:

1. Where is the control group? If the study is about the chilling effect on immigrants of the new public charge rules (although by the study's own acknowledgement, many of these families are mixed, and not simply "immigrant families"), then logic dictates that the study authors should have performed a separate, parallel survey of American citizen families to determine their feelings about using social benefits. Granted, such families are not subject to a "public charge" rule, but if their reluctance rates are equal to those of the "immigrant families" surveyed in the study, then the study loses its punch, doesn't it? And we don't know the answer to that critical question, because it wasn't asked.

2. How many of the adult individuals in the survey were, as a matter of law and regulation, ineligible for these benefits because they are illegally in the United States? The report is particularly fuzzy about segregating the status of these individuals in that fashion, choosing instead to lump everyone into the "immigrants" basket. But that obfuscation is a canard and should be rejected out of hand. All "immigrants" are not alike under the law, and that's a truth that stands without reference to the new public charge rule changes. Thus aliens residing in the United States illegally would inevitably have a built-in reluctance to bring attention to themselves by seeking certain benefits that might bring undesired attention to themselves.

3. Should we assume some sort of untoward bias against Hispanic "immigrant families", as the Urban Institute study suggests, if we incorporate into our knowledge the fact that Hispanics are a large, fast-growing segment of the U.S. population, almost completely because of recent immigration to the U.S.? Wouldn't it stand to reason, then, that given the huge proportion of migrants, legal and illegal, that they represent, they would be "over-represented" statistically in this study?

4. Are the responses accurate? Sometimes, survey respondents provide answers to which they have been led by leading questions that set the stage in a skewed way. Sometimes, survey respondents provide answers that they think that the questioners want to hear; and sometimes, they provide answers they want to questioner to believe, independent of what they themselves really think, feel or do. (Please note that these last two phenomena are not mutually exclusive.)

5. Finally, is it inherently bad that the rule has had a chilling effect on willingness to use social services and benefits that already have significant fiscal and other constraints tugging at them? Wasn't that, in fact, the purpose of the new regulatory structure – particularly given that newcomers to our society should be expected to carry their own weight, not immediately start drawing upon taxpayer-funded programs to which they have not contributed?

There are other things that come to my mind, but time and space are inevitably limited in a blog – but you get the point. The Urban Institute's survey has simply missed the mark.

Topics: Welfare