NPR incorrectly claims immigrants’ high welfare use is a myth

A new NPR Opinion Poll (by Ipos) and the accompanying article argues that many Americans mistakenly believe that immigrants use “public benefits” at higher rates than people born in the United States. NPR should have done its homework, because it is certainly not “wrong and misleading” to suggest that immigrant households make heavy use of welfare programs. In fact, it is well established that immigrant-headed households access most public benefit programs at higher rates than native-headed households.

NPR cites no data to support its position. Instead, it simply states that many immigrants are excluded from welfare programs. However, most legal immigrants have lived in the country long enough to access welfare or have become citizens. Additionally, all legal immigrants and even illegal immigrants can receive benefits on behalf of their US-born children. An analysis of the Center’s Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) published last year, based on data collected before Covid-19, shows that immigrant households use almost all types of welfare programs at higher rates than US-born households. .

The massive use of social assistance programs by immigrant households is not because immigrants are lazy and do not work, nor because they all came to receive social assistance. On the contrary, a greater proportion of immigrants have modest levels of education and are more likely to be poor. As a result, immigrants are more likely than the US-born to look to taxpayers to support themselves or their children.

In our previous analysis, we looked at the following programs: Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Women’s Food Program , infants and children (WIC), free or subsidized school breakfast and lunch, food stamps (officially called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), Medicaid, public housing, and rent subsidies. All of these poverty reduction programs are means-tested. (In an effort to inflate the rate of use of people born in the United States, some proponents of high immigration attempted to argue that social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare should be considered welfare. But these programs are not means-tested – they are open to all participants who pay into the system – and are therefore not welfare as traditionally defined.)

Summary information from our previous analysis:

  • In 2018, 49% of households headed by all immigrants—naturalized citizens, legal residents, and illegal immigrants—used at least one major social assistance program, compared to 32% of households headed by native-born individuals.
  • Among households headed by non-citizens, 55% used at least one social assistance program. Non-SIPP nationals include those who are in the country legally (e.g. green card holders) and those who are in the country illegally.
  • Welfare use dropped somewhat to 45% for all immigrant households and 51% for non-citizen households if Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) cash payments are not counted as social assistance. This compares to 28% for Indigenous households excluding the EITC. EITC recipients pay no federal income tax and, like other social assistance, it is a means-tested anti-poverty program, but unlike other programs, it must work to receive it.
  • Compared to native households, immigrant-led households had particularly high use of Medicaid (33% versus 20% for natives) and food programs (31% versus 19% for natives).
  • Including the EITC, 25% of all immigrant-headed households and 27% of non-citizen-headed households received cash welfare, compared to 18% of native-born households. If the EITC is not included, the cash receipts of all immigrant and non-citizen households were only slightly higher than those of native-born households.
  • Welfare use is high for both recent immigrants and long-term US residents. Among immigrant-led households who had lived in the United States for 10 years or less, 44% used at least one program. Of those who have lived in the country for more than 10 years, 50% have accessed one or more programs.
  • Among households headed by a noncitizen who had lived in the United States for 10 years or less, 40% used at least one major program and for those in the country for more than 10 years, it was 62%.
  • Factors that tend to reduce the effectiveness of restrictions on the use of immigrant welfare include:
    • Noncitizens (including illegal immigrants) can receive benefits on behalf of their US-born children who gain US citizenship and full welfare eligibility at birth.
    • Most legal immigrants have been in the country long enough to qualify for welfare
    • The ban does not apply to all programs and does not always apply to non-citizen children
    • Naturalized adults and children have the same right to welfare as people born in the United States
    • Some states themselves provide welfare to otherwise ineligible immigrants

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