National Review Online, September 10, 2015
Two new reports from the Center for Immigration Studies show very high rates of welfare use by immigrants. The first, released last week, looked at all immigrant households, legal and illegal, and found that 51 percent accessed one or more welfare programs.
This week we released a second report, looking at the same data but separating out legal and illegal immigrants. While we found that illegal-immigrant households make significant use of welfare, here I want to focus on the far bigger problem of legal immigrants' welfare use. Three-quarters of all immigrant households using welfare are headed by legal immigrants. Legal immigration is a discretionary policy that is supposed to benefit the country; we can allow in or keep out anyone we want. Yet our current legal-immigration system has produced a flow of immigrants in which a large share cannot support themselves or their children.
To study immigrant welfare use, we used the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation. Like other researchers, we identified legal and illegal immigrants based on various questions in the survey. We estimated that 49 percent of households headed by legal immigrants used one or more welfare programs in 2012, compared with 30 percent of households headed by the native-born. Legal immigrants have significantly higher use rates than native-born households overall and for cash programs, food programs, and Medicaid; use of housing programs is about the same as for natives. Among legal-immigrant households with children, the rate of welfare use is an astonishing 72 percent. There is no evidence that these numbers represent fraud; instead, they represent a profound problem with the selection criteria we use to admit legal immigrants.
In addition to the cost to taxpayers, these figures have political implications. The high welfare use of immigrants may help explain, for example, why survey data show strong majorities of voters in immigrant communities that are supportive of big government.
Americans have always rightly sensed there was a problem with immigrants' welfare use. But it is important to understand that most immigrant (and native) households accessing welfare have at least one worker. In fact, there is a worker present in 85 percent of legal-immigrant households. However, work does not equal self-sufficiency.
The welfare system is explicitly designed to assist low-income workers with children, and this describes many immigrant households. For example, a family consisting of two children and a single parent earning $20,000 a year qualifies for just about every non-cash welfare program in almost every state, including WIC, food stamps, free school lunch, Medicaid, and subsidized or public housing. If their monthly income is low enough for part of the year, they may also access cash programs.
One reason why legal immigrants have such high welfare-use rates is the large fraction of them who have low levels of education. Legal-immigrant households are more than twice as likely to be headed by a person who has not graduated from high school as native households. Welfare use by less-educated immigrants is enormous. We estimate that in 2012, 75 percent of households headed by legal immigrants without a high-school diploma used one or more welfare programs, as did 64 percent of households headed by legal immigrants with only a high-school education.
We also found that even among households headed by people with bachelor's degrees, those headed by immigrants used welfare at double the rate of natives — 26 percent vs. 13 percent. This may point to other causes of immigrant welfare use, such as culture. Also, the social networks that new immigrants rely on for everything from finding a job to getting an apartment seem to also be very effective at helping immigrants navigate the welfare system.
Although these numbers may seem shockingly high, no one has disputed the accuracy of our first report. The main response, by open-border libertarians, has been that immigrants may use more welfare, but poor immigrants use slightly less welfare than poor natives. This is true, but only for certain programs. The libertarian claim is essentially that immigrants represent "a better class of underclass," as my colleague Mark Krikorian puts it — not a particularly compelling argument. The fact is that immigrants' poverty rate is about 50 percent higher than that of natives, and immigrants' welfare use reflects these poverty rates. (See here for a longer discussion of this and related issues.)
It's also worth mentioning that refugees and asylum recipients (who have easier access to welfare under the law) do not explain these welfare-use rates. Such humanitarian immigration accounts for only about 13 percent of immigrants, and prior analysis has shown their welfare use to be similar to that of immigrants overall.
All of this means that President George W. Bush was wrong when he argued that all that matters is matching a willing worker with a willing employer. Allowing in large numbers of less-educated legal immigrants has enormous negative implications for taxpayers. Of course, less-educated native workers also use a lot of welfare, but they are already here and they're already part of our national community. It would make far more sense to draw some of the 30 million less-educated working-age people in the country who are currently not working back into the labor market by reducing immigration and letting wages rise, rather than continuing to allow large-scale unskilled immigration.
Some might argue that we should allow in immigrant workers but "build a wall around the welfare state." The 1996 welfare reform tried this, and it failed. We have a brief appendix in our first welfare report that explains in detail why this is the case. In short, restrictions often apply to only a modest share of immigrants at any one time; some programs are not restricted; there are numerous exceptions; states often provide welfare with their own money; and some provisions are entirely unenforced.
To give just one example: If new immigrants need financial help, they are supposed to turn to their sponsors, who have signed a legally binding (if seldom enforced) "affidavit of support." But there's an "indigent exception" that allows them to get welfare anyway, negating the whole point of making sponsors responsible.
It's also true that immigrants can receive benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children, who have access to all welfare programs, including cash and food stamps, like any other U.S. citizen. In fact, otherwise ineligible immigrants can live in public housing if they have just one U.S.-born child. This applies even to the citizen children of illegal aliens — but there are many more children of legal immigrants, making that the bigger part of the welfare issue.
Practically and politically, barring low-income legal immigrants and their children from welfare after they have been allowed into the country is probably not possible. Are we really going to cut off low-income children, disabled immigrants, and the working poor from welfare once they are here? In a country that often makes public policy by heart-rending anecdote, that seems very unlikely.
While high welfare use by legal immigrants is a serious problem, it is a mistake to see it as a moral failing. It merely reflects the intersection of three trends: a modern U.S. economy that offers low wages for the less-educated, an expansive welfare system, and an immigration program that admits large numbers of less-educated people from abroad. (It is not particularly helpful to compare today's legal immigrants with those who arrived 100 years ago, because there was no real welfare system at that time.)
It is perfectly reasonable to want to scale back the welfare state for everyone. But in the meantime, some 20 to 25 million new legal immigrants will settle in the country in the next two decades under the current system. The overwhelming majority will come because they have a relative here, not because of their skills. If we want to avoid high immigrant welfare use in the future, we will have to move to a highly selective legal-immigration system that admits primarily skilled immigrants who are unlikely to use these programs. If we choose not to make such changes, we must accept without complaint the welfare costs created by the current system.