Immigration and Welfare: The Devil Is in the Details

By Mark Krikorian on April 1, 1997

p. 13 in Immigration Review no. 28, Spring 1997

When Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the welfare reform law), it barred non-citizens from collecting Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other federal benefits. More than 40 percent of the law's projected savings were to come from the alien welfare bar.

It was immediately evident that the savings estimates were exaggerated, since lawmakers did not consider the possibility, since resoundingly confirmed, that many aliens would naturalize in order to preserve their eligibility for benefits. However, another provision of the law ensures that, even without additional naturalizations, the law's savings will be even less than imagined.

The welfare-reform law includes certain exceptions to the eligibility bar, including for refugees during their first five years of residence, veterans, and those who had worked for 40 quarters.

This last exception was based on the implicit premise that after 10 years of work, an alien, even if he had not been naturalized, could be considered as having become "vested" in the welfare system. Advocates and commentators observed that immigrants who had lived here less than 10 years would be ineligible for federal benefits.

But, as is often the case in legislation, the devil is in the details. Section 435 of the law specifies that an alien can accrue more than four quarters in one calendar year by getting credit for quarters worked by his parents before the alien turned 18 and/or quarters worked by the alien's spouse.

Instructions from the Social Security Administration to its field offices offer the following example: "A LAPR [legal immigrant] alien couple and their two LAPR alien children (one age 12 and the other age 23) all apply for SSI. Each member of the couple has earned 20 QCs [qualifying quarters of coverage] for work done more than five years earlier, before the older child had turned age 18. All four LAPR aliens meet the 40 QC eligibility category based on the couple's 40 QCs." In other words, all four members of this hypothetical family become eligible for federal benefits after each spouse works five years, rather that the ten years per person many imagined.

Thus, the use of federal benefits by low-skilled non-citizens is not likely to be reduced as much as proponents of the eligibility bar had imagined. This underlines the difficulty with solving problems of immigration policy (the admission of too many unskilled family members) by way of immigrant policy (welfare cutoffs). The more direct approach of limiting low-skilled immigration would appear to offer a more effective solution.