Study Examines Effects of Welfare Reform on Immigrants

By CIS on March 1, 2002

WASHINGTON (March 28, 2002) - Later this year, Congress will debate re-authorization of landmark welfare reform passed in 1996. To better inform the debate, the Center for Immigration Studies is releasing an examination of immigrant and native use of welfare before and after welfare reform by Harvard's George Borjas, identified by The Wall Street Journal as "America's leading immigration economist."

The 1996 welfare reforms were designed to lower welfare use rates among all Americans, and in fact welfare use rates have declined for both immigrants and natives. Because welfare use by immigrants was significantly higher than that of natives, several additional provisions of the 1996 legislation reduced welfare eligibility for some immigrants. One of the key questions with regard to the immigrant provisions of welfare reform is the extent to which it narrowed the difference between immigrant and native welfare use.

Prof. Borjas' new study, The Impact of Welfare Reform on Immigrant Welfare Use, examines this question in detail.

Among the study's findings:

  • Although immigrant use of welfare continues to be significantly higher than that of natives, the difference between the two groups has narrowed somewhat at the national level. However, this relative decline can be entirely attributed to a relative decline in California. In the rest of the country, the difference between the two groups has been unchanged.
  • Much of the potential impact of welfare reform on immigrants outside of California was undone by the actions of state governments. Many states - particularly those with large immigrant populations - chose to offer state-provided benefits to otherwise ineligible immigrants.
  • There is strong evidence that immigrants sought citizenship as a means of retaining welfare eligibility. Those immigrant groups with the heaviest welfare use rates saw the largest increases in naturalization after welfare reform, further neutralizing its potential impact.

"If we are concerned about immigrant welfare use it would probably make more sense to select immigrants who don't need welfare in the first place, rather than trying to prevent immigrants from using it after they have already been allowed into the country," said Professor Borjas. "We could do this by selecting immigrants based more on their education levels rather than the current system, which for the most part, admits immigrants based on whether they have a relative in the United States."

Other findings:

  • California is one of the most generous states in offering benefits to otherwise ineligible immigrants. Thus there appears to be no measurable factors that can explain the significant drop in immigrant welfare participation in California. The California experience may indeed reflect a "chilling" effect - but the chilling seems to be related to the passing of Proposition 187 in 1994 rather than welfare reform.
  • While immigrant welfare use has dropped significantly in California, welfare use among immigrants in that state remains much higher than that of natives.

Steven A. Camarota, Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said "Advocates of cutting immigrants off welfare in 1996 argues that it would reduce costs while continuing mass immigration. The study's findings indicate that both politically and practically that approach taken in 1996 is not likely to narrow the gap between immigrant and natives use of welfare. Moreover, by cutting them off from welfare eligibility, even when their sponsors are unable to meet their obligations, it sends the very troubling message to legal immigrants that they may come to America but they should not expected to be treated like one of us."

Topics: Welfare