Welfare and social services

Welfare benefits paid out to poor people have long been contentious issues in the United States. Many Americans believe that individuals should take care of themselves. As the United States developed elements of a welfare state between the 1930’s and the 1960’s, legal immigrants were considered future Americans and were generally eligible for benefits. However, that notion changed in 1996, when reforms in public welfare systems began restricting the access of immigrants to most means-tested federal welfare programs. Giving immigrants access to social services such as education and public health programs has been less contentious.

Federal Welfare Programs

The concept of government “welfare” has generally been applied to cash assistance provided to poor people. Major federal welfare programs began during the Great Depression. In 1935, the federal government created what became the Aid to Families with Dependent ChildrenAid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program to provide direct cash assistance to mothers of young children who had low incomes. Recipients of these payments were expected to stay home and care for their children.WelfareWelfare[cat]PHILANTHROPY;Welfare and social services[cat]ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS AND MOVEMENTS;Welfare and social services

The federal [a]Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) fundamentally changed the welfare system in three major ways. First, it ended a guarantee that eligible poor residents would receive cash assistance by converting an open-ended entitlement program into a fixed grant of $16.8 billion to the individual states, which were permitted to end payments to poor people after their funds ran out. Second, PRWORA introduced limits on how long recipients could receive cash assistance, generally five years in a lifetime and two years without working. Third, PRWORA marked a major change in the relationship between immigrants and the social safety net, shifting U.S. policy from generally making immigrants eligible for welfare benefits to making them generally ineligible.

PRWORA converted the Aid to Families with Dependent ChildrenAid to Families with Dependent Children program into a block grant to states and renamed AFDC Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). States have used these federal funds, as well as their own funds, to provide cash assistance to poor people. In 1997, the United States had 12.6 million welfare cases–typically family units of single mothers with two children. By 2007, there were only 4.1 million welfare cases.

PRWORA limits “lifetime” cash assistance to five years, requires most welfare recipients to work after two years of cash assistance, and prohibits persons convicted of drug felonies from obtaining cash benefits. PRWORA is a work-first or A-B-C program (A job leads to a Better job leads to a Career), that is, adult TANF recipients are encouraged to work.

Enacted[a]Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 at a time of concern over rising federal budget deficits, PRWORA was expected to save about $54 billion over six years, with 40 percent of the savings coming from denying benefits to noncitizen immigrants. PRWORA’s provisions affecting immigrants were widely seen as the culmination of anti-immigrant efforts that began with the approval of California;Proposition 187[a]Proposition 187Proposition 187 in California in 1994. That voter initiative proposed to create a state-run system to prevent Illegal immigration;and welfare[welfare]undocumented immigrants from obtaining tax-supported welfare benefits. A court ruling blocked implementation of the Proposition 187 plan, but some of its provisions were included in PRWORA.

PRWORA introduced two major changes for immigrants. First, most legal immigrants who arrived in the United States after August 22, 1996, became ineligible for most means-tested benefits until they had worked ten years in the United States, or had became naturalized U.S. citizens after five years. Second, to prevent new immigrants from needing assistance, PRWORA and the [a]Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 required the American sponsors of immigrants to prove, by showing tax and other records, that they had the resources to support the persons they were sponsoring in the United States. Moreover, they also had to sign legally binding affidavits promising to support those immigrants.

In 2009, the federal government defined the poverty line for a family of four as an annual income of $22,050. For example, if an American couple were to sponsor two immigrant parents, they had to show they themselves had an income at least as high as 125 percent of the poverty-line figure, or $27,562. If the immigrant parents who were being sponsored applied for and received welfare assistance, the government could then sue the sponsoring couple to recover whatever benefits it had paid out. PRWORA required state and local agencies that provide welfare benefits to use the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) system to verify the legal status of noncitizen applicants for welfare benefits.

PRWORA[a]Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 has been called the third major change in U.S. immigration policy during the twentieth century. The first change was the introduction of national origins quotas during the 1920’s. The second change was the elimination of national quotas in 1965. The third change, therefore, was the introduction of a sharp distinction between U.S. citizens and immigrants in access to welfare in 1996. In each case, policy changes reflected the dominant political mood of the times–nativism and political isolationism after World War I, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, and the quest for a balanced budget during the 1990’s.

President Bill Clinton signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in August, 1996.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

During the U.S. economic boom of the late 1990’s, eligibility for welfare benefits was restored for most legal immigrants who had been resident in the United States before August 22, 1996. The rationale was that the U.S. government should not change the rules for immigrants midway through the game. President Clinton, BillBill Clinton urged restoration of eligibility, arguing

We passed welfare reform. We were right to do it. But . . . we must restore basic health and disability benefits when misfortune strikes immigrants who came to this country legally, who work hard, pay taxes, and obey the law. To do otherwise is simply unworthy of a great nation of immigrants.

Social Services

Social services are government-provided services that range from education to health care, and from housing to Social Security systemSocial Security. Some are mandatory, such as the requirement that all young children attend school. Some are work related, such as participation in the government Social Security program. Some are means-tested, such as eligibility for housing subsidies.


EducationEducation;and welfare assistance[welfare assistance] and cash welfare assistance frame the extremes of the immigrant-eligibility spectrum. All children, regardless of their legal immigration status, are not only eligible to attend public schools but also required to do so–at no charge. At the other end of the spectrum, both legal and undocumented immigrants are generally barred from receiving cash assistance. In between are work-related benefits such as employer-provided health insurance benefits, which can be provided to and used by both legal and Illegal immigration;and health care[health care]undocumented workers. Other programs draw distinctions between legal and undocumented workers. Workers compensation insurance, for example, which covers the costs of job-related injuries, pays for hospital and doctor care for all workers but does not provide continued wage-replacement benefits to undocumented workers because they are not legally allowed to work in the United States. Similarly, employers and legal and undocumented workers contribute to Social Security systemSocial Security, but only legal immigrants receive Social Security benefits.

Most social service issues involving immigrants focus on education, health, and social security. Schools are the most expensive taxpayer-supported service used by young immigrant families with children. They are also the key to ensuring that the children of immigrants obtain the education they need to succeed in the United States. At issue is whether the education of non-English-speaking immigrant children should be in their native languages, should be bilingual, or should be in English. Also at issue is what services should be offered to adult immigrants, such as English as a second languageEnglish as a second language courses. Many researchers look at immigrant children in American schools and see a half-full glass, as some immigrant children excel, even though their parents have not completed elementary school educations themselves. Others look at immigrant high school dropout rates of up to 50 percent and despair.

Health Care

Unlike workers in countries with national health insurance programs, most American workers obtain health and other social service benefits from their employers. However, employers are not legally required to provide health insurance, and many smaller employers who employ recently arrived immigrants usually do not. Children of immigrant parents with low incomes and no employer health insurance benefits are often covered by MedicaidMedicaid and the State Child Health Insurance Program. However, because legal immigration status may vary among family members, so also does eligibility for social services. Consequently, some American-born children within immigrant families may be eligible for publicly provided health insurance benefits for which their parents and foreign-born siblings are not.

Other work-related social services can be even more complicated. Social Security systemSocial Security provides an example. In 2009, employers and their employees each contributed 7.65 percent of the employees’ first $106,800 in annual earnings to cover the cost of Social Security and MedicareMedicare. However, only legal U.S. residents were eligible to collect Social Security benefits. However, Illegal immigration;and Social Securityundocumented workers who legalize their status can receive credit for the time worked while their status was illegal. During the late 1980’s, millions of immigrants did exactly that after a federal law legalized them.

Immigrants and the Safety Net

When the U.S. government was creating the welfare state between the 1930’s and 1960’s, it made few distinctions between U.S. citizens and immigrants. However, as immigration rates were increasing during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and illegal migration was becoming a political issue, federal and state governments began to require applicants for means-tested benefits to prove they were in the United States legally.

The federal welfare reforms of 1996 marked a turning point in welfare policy for all Americans, but especially for immigrants. A five-year time limit was placed on cash assistance for all adults, legal immigrants were barred from receiving cash assistance for at least five years, and barriers between social services and unauthorized foreigners were raised.

The national health care reform debate launched by Obama, BarackPresident Barack Obama in early 2009 seemed to signal that U.S. policy would continue to exclude especially unauthorized foreigners from receiving social services. By 2009, the United States was spending about two trillion dollars a year on health care, but 46 million U.S. residents still lack health care coverage, including 7 million unauthorized foreign residents. Obama and other leaders have said that legal immigrants would be covered but unauthorized foreigners would be excluded from universal health care plans, indicating that policy makers will continue to make distinctions between U.S. citizens, legal immigrants, and unauthorized foreigners.Welfare

Further Reading

  • Fix, Michael, ed. Securing the Future: U.S. Immigrant Integration Policy–A Reader. Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, 2007. Articles in this book discusses the fact that although the United States had admitted one million immigrants per year through the previous two decades, it remained one of the few industrial countries without an immigrant integration policy. Compared to European countries, the United States had nevertheless been successful in integrating low-skilled immigrant workers into its labor force, but they have wound up among the working poor, without health insurance. The contributors urge more government assistance for education, health care, and other social services to ensure successful integration.
  • Krikorian, Mark. The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal. New York: Sentinel, 2008. This book argues against large-scale immigration on grounds ranging from the changing U.S. economy to their potential welfare costs. Krikorian contends that because the U.S. economy has changed, it no longer needs large numbers of low-skilled newcomers, and that social norms and government policies have changed to reduce the incentives of newcomers to integrate. Krikorian emphasizes that there were few social services except education provided by government during the last major wave of immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Martin, Philip. Importing Poverty? Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. Explores the process of moving poor Mexicans–who are the most numerous immigrants in the United States–into rural and agricultural areas of the United States, and what these newcomers mean for welfare and social service systems in these areas.
  • Myers, Dowell. Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2007. Argues that aging baby boomers need to ensure that immigrants and their children get the education and skills needed to succeed in the United States so that their taxes can support the boomers in their old age.
  • Smith, James P., and Barry Edmonston, eds. The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1997. This book is the result of a yearlong study by a panel of social scientists conducted in the aftermath of Proposition 187 in California and welfare reform in 1996. It reviews the impact of immigration on the evolution of the U.S. population and economy and on taxes paid and the value of tax-supported services received.

Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S.

Economic consequences of immigration

Economic opportunities


Federation for American Immigration Reform

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

Proposition 187

Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy