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.
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
PRWORA converted the
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.
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
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.
President Bill Clinton signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in August, 1996.
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 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.
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 are government-provided services that range from education to health care, and from housing to
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
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
Other work-related social services can be even more complicated.
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
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
Federation for American Immigration Reform
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy