The Wall Street Journal's Misguided Attack on the CIS Immigrant Welfare Study

By Steven A. Camarota on October 9, 2015

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial this week that highlighted the positive aspects of the National Research Council's mixed assessment of immigrant integration. The Journal's positive spin is unsurprising, given that its editors have been advocates of open borders for decades.

More surprising – or if not surprising, at least disappointing – is that the Journal included a deeply misguided attack on CIS's recent study of immigrant welfare usage. Our study found that 51 percent of immigrant-headed households used at least one form of welfare in 2012, compared to 30 percent of native households. Here is how the Journal described that study:

...[S]o many [people] are painting immigrants who come here to work as criminals or welfare mooches. To take one example, the Donald Trump brain trust at the Center for Immigration Studies recently found "significantly higher welfare use associated with immigrants."

But even CIS admits they didn't measure individuals. To get to the headline-grabbing result, CIS had to measure households. Given that immigrant households are typically larger than those of native-born Americans, simple arithmetic means that the more people you have in a home, the more likely one of these people will receive some sort of government benefit.

Let's get one thing out of the way up front: CIS has never characterized immigrants as "mooches." Immigrants come to the U.S. to work. The point we make in our study is that welfare and work go together in modern America. Immigrants receive more welfare than natives mainly because they have below-average skills, and thus earn low wages, not because they are beggars.

As to the issue of measuring welfare at the household level, it is amusing that the Journal used the phrase "even CIS admits…" Yes, we do admit to using the best possible methodology. We've been caught red-handed!

As explained in detail in our report, households are the best way to evaluate welfare usage for the simple reason that welfare eligibility is typically determined by the characteristics of families who live in those households, not by individuals alone. Moreover, welfare benefits can often be consumed by all members of the household, such as food purchased with food stamps. Even when the government provides food or health insurance only to children, it creates a benefit to adult members of the household who will not have to spend money on those things.

A person-level analysis would be needlessly complicated – is free school lunch a welfare benefit for the parent, the child, or both? – and it would completely miss the benefits going to the U.S.-born children of immigrants.

Do larger immigrant households contribute to their higher welfare rates? Of course. Does that bias the analysis? No. Immigrants have larger households primarily because they have more children. Having children is a choice made by immigrants that can be quite costly to taxpayers if they are unable to provide for them. The fact that a very large share of immigrants have children, and then turn to the taxpayers to support them is a very important finding even if the Journal wants to pretend otherwise. Moreover, having more adults means that immigrant households have more potential workers who can provide income and keep their families off welfare. Unfortunately, as we show in the study, things often don't work out that way.

Household-level analysis is standard for the kind of welfare analysis that we performed. In fact, the National Research Council itself calculated welfare at the household level in its 1997 study of immigration. If CIS's method is as absurd as the Journal implies, why is the Journal touting a new report from a group that endorses the same method?