Welfare Reform and Immigrant Hunger

by Celia Meredith

Welfare Reform at 20: Only six states have partially restored food assistance for immigrants. Oregon isn’t one of them.

August 22, 2016 marked the 20th Anniversary of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), more commonly referred to as “welfare reform.” This act aimed to “end welfare as we know it,” and not only enacted time limits for access to SNAP, as certain counties in Oregon are beginning to experience again with the SNAP time limit provision, but also did things like largely restrict access to federal benefits for many non-citizens, including lawfully present immigrants.

How did welfare reform do that?

Welfare reform essentially divided noncitizens into two categories of immigrants: “qualified” and “nonqualified.” The divide isn’t as simple as lawfully present and not, as many lawfully present immigrants, such as students (including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA recipients) and tourists are “nonqualified” for SNAP. Welfare reform also divided “qualified” immigrants by their arrival date: those who arrived after the enactment of the bill (8/22/96) are not allowed to access public benefits for their first five years in the U.S.

This table is an edited and simplified version of one published by the National Immigration Law Center, which can be found at https://www.nilc.org/issues/economic-support/table_ovrw_fedprogs/. LPR stands for “Legal Permanent Resident,” colloquially referred to as a green card.

Another important change was in the administration of public benefits: welfare reform gave individual states a greater ability to choose how to administer programs. While minimum eligibility standards and benefit levels are set at the federal level, states could now expand their programs. One example of this is that states can decide to use their own funds to replace the benefits that were lost to certain non-citizens because of the five-year ban. Understandably, this has led to inconsistent programs across the nation, where some states have expanded SNAP and TANF coverage, while others have not.

Why does this matter?

A significant body of research shows that food security is incredibly important to positive child development, especially in the earliest years. In 2014, 17.1 percent of the foreign-born population of the U.S. was living in poverty (Pew Research Center 2016). According to a 2014 report by the Urban Institute (looking at data from 2008-09), 24 percent of kids through age 17 (about 18 million), were living in families with one or more foreign-born parents. This research also shows that although children with foreign-born parents are “overrepresented among poor families, they are underrepresented in public benefits enrollment.”

Percentage of Children Living in Poor Families, 2008-09 from Urban Institute’s 2014 report “Low-Income Immigrant Families’ Access to SNAP and TANF.”

What does this mean for nutrition programs?

Research shows that children of foreign-born parents are at increased risk of poor health and food insecurity, more so than children with native-born parents. Many households containing noncitizens have other individuals with different immigration statuses, making them “mixed status” households. Thus, there are households with eligible citizen children who do not receive food assistance. One potential reason is that many noncitizen adults may fear applying for benefits for their children because of anti-immigrant and/or anti-welfare rhetoric. Sometimes, the family’s income calculations may make them ineligible; the way that income is calculated for SNAP favors noncitizens with a lawfully present status, and when noncitizens can’t or won’t share their documentation or status with DHS, the household’s benefit amount lowers or even disappears.(Capps et al 2009).

Thus, while children of foreign-born parents are more likely to live in poor families than children with native-born parents, they are at the same time less likely to receive SNAP benefits than children with native-born parents.

Percentage of Children in Poor Families Receiving SNAP, 2008-09 from Urban Institute’s 2014 report “Low-Income Immigrant Families’ Access to SNAP and TANF”

Federally, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that data from 2009-12 shows that “SNAP lifts an estimated 9.3 million people above the poverty line, and makes many others less poor. Altogether, SNAP… assists about 44 million people a month, including about 20 million children.”

In Oregon, “SNAP lifts an estimated 120,000 people above the poverty line, and makes many others less poor. Altogether, SNAP assists an average of 780,000 people a month, including about 270,000 children.”

What about state options?

As of May 2016, there are five states that offer nutrition assistance to immigrants who are not eligible for SNAP benefits: California, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota and Washington.

“State-Funded Food Assistance Programs” table from National Immigration Law Center, last updated 08/2016.

Although this isn’t a solution for every group that lost access to SNAP and federal food assistance due to welfare reform, these six states are “filling the gap” in meaningful ways for certain qualified noncitizens. By expanding food assistance programs, states have strengthened the safety net to combat food insecurity and provided a direct stimulus to their economies.