Comment on "Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds",
DHS Docket No. USCIS-2010-0012
By Steven Camarota, Ph.D., Director of Research
Center for Immigration Studies
December 7, 2018
The underlying rational for not admitting prospective immigrants who are likely to be public charges is that non-humanitarian immigration is supposed to benefit the American people. That is, those allowed into the country to live here are supposed to be self-sufficient, living without cash or other in-kind transfers from American taxpayers. Some may object to this line of thinking, but it seems almost certain that the overwhelming majority of Americans agree that immigrants should be able to provide for themselves and their children.
Of course, not giving permanent residence to those who cannot support themselves says nothing about the personal character of those denied entry. Rather it reflects the fact that resources are not unlimited and America must prioritize the care of its own poor. After all, the United States already has 40 million residents in poverty, spends $1.1 trillion annually on programs on low-income Americans, and runs a federal budget deficit of roughly a trillion dollars annually.1 Adding to these challenges by admitting more people who need taxpayer assistance makes little sense. While I support the administration's public charge reform efforts, in my view the new proposals are too limited to have a large impact on welfare use among future immigrants.
Immigrant Welfare Use Is High
Reform of the public-charge doctrine is clearly needed. The current system for determining those likely to become public charges has been largely ineffective. Welfare use by immigrants and their dependent children is very high. In a new study using the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) collected in 2014, my co-author Karen Ziegler and I show that 55 percent of all immigrant households (legal and illegal) use one or more welfare programs. Of perhaps greater relevance to the discussion over public charge, we also found that that the figure is 63 percent for households headed by non-citizens. We included in our analysis the major cash and non-cash programs, including the EITC, SSI, TANF, as well as the largest food programs WIC, school lunch/breakfast, food stamps, Medicaid, and public and rent subsidized housing. Compared to native households, non-citizen households have much higher use of food programs (45 percent vs. 21 percent for natives), Medicaid (50 percent vs. 23 percent for natives), and cash programs (31 percent vs. 19 percent for natives).2
When interpreting the figures for non-citizen households, it must be kept in mind that roughly half are illegal immigrants in the SIPP and should not be using welfare at all, at least in theory, and yet the figures look as they do.3 Clearly, we have done a poor job of selecting legal immigrants unlikely to use welfare programs and of keeping illegal immigrants and their children off means-tested programs. A new approach is needed if we are to avoid this problem among future arrivals. The new public-charge rules are a good first step in that direction. However, there are additional changes that should be implemented to the extent possible.
Four Needed Changes to Proposed Reform
1) Count Welfare Used by Dependents. The new regulations do not include welfare use by dependents. The very idea of self-sufficiency means that people can provide for themselves and their children and spouses without assistance from taxpayers. Moreover, a very large share of the nation's welfare system is designed to provide assistance to children. Given that this is a central feature of the nation's welfare system, public-charge regulations must take this fact into account. Excluding welfare received by dependents is like having an income tax that excludes all income from second jobs, investments, and rental properties. Use of welfare programs by dependent children must be part of any determination of admissibility in the context of public charge.
Excluding welfare use by dependents leaves us with the absurd situation that an applicant, whose children are on Medicaid, WIC, and free school lunch, would not be considering a pubic charge. Even if that applicant also received TANF and food stamps, but the benefits were received in the name of dependent children (referred to as a child-only household) this, too, would not count when making a public-charge determination. My analysis of the 2014 public-use SIPP data shows that in 39 percent of immigrant headed households (legal and illegal) receiving TANF, only the children receive the payments. Thus, much of the immigrant welfare use of this program would be missed if dependents are not considered. My analysis of the same data also shows that there are roughly equal numbers of U.S.-born children of immigrants on Medicaid as there are immigrants (legal and illegal) on the program. In a very real sense, for the public-charge doctrine to be meaningful it simply cannot ignore welfare received by dependent children — U.S.-born or foreign-born — no matter what programs are ultimately included in the final regulations.
2) Adding Additional Programs. One of the key innovations of the proposed rule changes is to add housing, food stamps (SNAP), and Medicaid to the list of programs that will be included when making a public-charge determination. This is a significant improvement over the current approach that only considers receipt of cash programs. However, there is no reason to limit the number of programs used to make the public charge determination to a few programs. The Earned Income Tax Credit, the cash payment portion of the Additional Child Tax Credit (which illegal immigrants can and do receive), WIC, free school lunch, and low-income energy assistance should also be included when a public-charge determination is made. These are not trivial programs. The federal government paid out about $80 billion combined in cash payments from the EITC and ACTC in 2016. The cost of WIC, the free school lunch and breakfast programs, and low-income energy assistance totals nearly $26 billion annually.4 A family receiving thousands of dollars from the ACTC and EITC, and paying no federal income tax, which is the case with these two programs, can hardly be said to be self-reliant. If a family is, or would be, so poor once given permanent residence that they cannot feed their own children or pay for something as basic as utilities and must receive WIC, free school meals, or energy assistance, they are by definition not self-supporting.
The above list is hardly exhaustive when it comes to potential programs. By one count, there are a total of 89 separate means-tested welfare programs spread across 14 departments and agencies, paid for by the federal government. For example, more than $30 billion is spent annually by the federal government on Refundable Premium Assistance and cost-sharing tax credits to assist low-income people with buying health insurance. Means-tested federal programs also include Head Start, Healthy Start, TEFAP, FACFP, homeless assistance grants, and weatherization assistance, just to name a few. States also spend some $6 billion annually on their own as part of their Medicaid General Assistance programs and another $34 billion on other programs to help low-income people receive care, particularly at hospitals.5 The vast number of overlapping and linked welfare programs means that recipients seldom use just one program.
There may be some who argue it is mean-spirted to deny a green card for "only" using TANF or getting the EITC. But this view not only ignores the applicant's lack of self-sufficiency, it also ignores the very high probably that the prospective immigrant is using or will use other programs. If a person is poor enough to use one program, they often qualify and use others. The current concept of public charge, which relies on the notion that an applicant cannot be "primarily" dependent on the government, makes no sense. There is no meaningful difference from being partly or primarily dependent on welfare — just as one cannot be a little bit pregnant. Either one is or is not dependent on the government. The new regulations wisely drop the idea of being primarily dependent.
One can debate the wisdom of any or all federal and state efforts to help the poor. But the key point to remember is that these programs exist and are not likely to be ended any time soon. Reflecting their much higher poverty rate, immigrants and their U.S.-born children can and do access these programs — large and small. Not issuing green cards to people using any welfare program in the expanded list discussed above, including their dependents, would save tax payers money and would align public-charge regulations with the idea that prospective immigrants are supposed to be self-reliant.
3) Education Is Key Predictor of Welfare Use. That educational attainment is highly correlated with income and welfare use for both immigrants and natives should surprise no one. In the modern American economy, the importance of education to life-time earnings has become more pronounced in the last half-century. There is simply no question that less-educated immigrants, or less-educated natives for that matter, make extensive use of the welfare system and are a significant net fiscal drain — creating more in costs than they pay in taxes. This is not some kind of moral failing on their part. The majority of immigrants come for work and most do work, including those accessing the welfare system. But their education, resulting low average income, and heavy use of means-tested programs means they do not pay enough in taxes to cover their consumption of public services.
The importance of education can be seen by simply looking at welfare use rates. In Table 3 of my report with Karen Ziegler cited earlier, we show that of households headed by non-citizens with no more than a high school education, 81 percent access one or more welfare programs. In contrast, 28 percent of non-citizen households headed by a college graduate use one or more welfare programs. When the National Academy of Science looked at the net lifetime fiscal impact of adult immigrants (taxes paid minus services and costs they create) they ran eight different scenarios — some making favorable assumptions about immigrants, some making unfavorable assumptions. In all eight scenarios, immigrants who arrive without a high school education were shown to be a large net fiscal drain during their lifetimes. Those with only a high school education were also found to be a net fiscal drain in seven of eight scenarios.6 Less-educated immigrants are unambiguously a net fiscal drain because of their education levels resulting in lower average income and tax payments and high use of welfare programs.
The proposed public-charge rules rightly include education when considering the totally of an applicant's circumstances. But in my view they do not go far enough. If an applicant has only a high school education or did not graduate high school, then the burden must be on them to show they will not be a public charge. In the same way that an applicant who has a prior removal as part of his or her record will not be issued a green card unless he or she meets the requirements for a waiver, applicants with very little education should normally be denied an adjustment of status unless they, too, go through a process similar to a waiver. Perhaps this could be implemented by requiring those with a modest level of education to show that they have the skills necessary to earn wages above the point at which they and their dependents would not be eligible for any welfare program — 250 percent of poverty. Educational attainment is such a good predictor of welfare use and fiscal burden that it must be a central focus of efforts to reduce welfare use among future immigrants. Put a different way, educational attainment should not just be one factor when considering an applicant, it must become a determinate factor.
4) Income, Not Employment, Should Determine Admissibility. At present, public-charge rules put significant emphasis on whether an immigrant will be employed after he or she is admitted or has adjusted status. It is certainly reasonable to have this continue to be part of the regulations. But the key issue is income, not employment. Using a welfare program(s) and working in no way preclude each other. My analysis with Karen Ziegler found that of non-citizen households receiving welfare, 93 percent have at least one worker, as do 76 percent of native households receiving welfare. It may be surprising to some, but for most major welfare programs, use rates are not that different for households that have a worker compared to all households. This is the case for both immigrants and natives. There are several reasons for this, but the most important is that the nation's welfare system is explicitly designed to assist low-income workers with children, especially after the 1996 welfare reform. This describes a very large share of immigrants.
Because such a large share of welfare is received by working households, when evaluating the totality of an applicant's circumstances, income should be the emphasis rather than employment, at least in the context of public-charge doctrine. To that end, the current guidelines, which use 125 percent of poverty as the point at which someone is likely to become a public charge, are too low. Those with incomes above 125 percent of poverty still qualify for many means-tested welfare programs. For example, the income limit for adults with two children to receive the EITC is more than $50,000, or roughly 200 percent of the poverty threshold for a family of four people. Moreover, those with incomes below 138 percent of poverty can receive Medicaid. In a state like California, children in families with incomes below 266 percent of poverty can be on Medicaid (CHIP). The new public-charge regulations must include a provision that requires applicants to show their income will be high enough that neither they nor their dependents will qualify for any welfare program. It is worth adding that persons below 200 percent to 250 percent of poverty typically pay little or no federal income tax, adding to the fiscal burden they create.
1 The latest Census Bureau annual estimate of poverty can be found here; for spending on means-tested programs see Robert Rector and Vijay Menon, "Understanding the Hidden $1.1 Trillion Welfare System and How to Reform It", Heritage Foundation, April, 2018.
2 All of the above statistics came from Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler, "63% of Non-Citizen Households Access Welfare Programs: Compared to 35% of native households", Center for Immigration Studies, December 2018.
3 In its 2014 estimate of the illegal immigrant population, the most recent available, the government estimated that there were 12.1 million illegal immigrants in the country, about 11 million of whom were in the American Community Survey (ACS). See Table 2, in Bryan Baker, "Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2014", DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, July 2017. The total number of non-citizens in the 2014 ACS, on which the DHS estimates are based, was 22.3 million. So about half of the non-citizens in the survey are illegal immigrants. The 2014 SIPP, on which the analysis is based, shows slightly fewer non-citizens (20 million) than the ACS. The primary reason the SIPP does not show as large a non-citizen population as the ACS is that the SIPP does not include those in institutions, as does the ACS. Also, the non-citizen population grows slightly each year, and the first panel of the SIPP was in 2013, making for a slightly smaller non-citizen population in the 2014 SIPP. But overall, it is still the case that roughly half the non-citizens in the SIPP used for our analysis are in the country illegally.
4 Robert Rector and Vijay Menon, "Understanding the Hidden $1.1 Trillion Welfare System and How to Reform It", Heritage Foundation, April, 2018.
5 All of these figures come from Robert Rector and Vijay Menon, "Understanding the Hidden $1.1 Trillion Welfare System and How to Reform It", Heritage Foundation, April, 2018.
6 The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration, Francine D. Blau and Christopher Mackie eds., Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2017. Table 8-12 (Table 431-433) reports the lifetime net fiscal impact of immigrant by education.