The Myth that Immigrants Drain Social Welfare Programs

Low-income immigrants use public benefits like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) at a lower rate than low-income native-born citizens.1 Many immigrants are ineligible for public benefits because of their immigration status. Nonetheless, some claim that immigrants use more public benefits than the native born, creating a serious and unfair burden for citizens.2 This analysis provides updated analysis of immigrant and native-born utilization of Medicaid, SNAP, cash assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and similar programs), and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program based on the most recent data from the Census Bureau’s March 2012 Current Population Survey (CPS).

Low-income (family income below 200% of poverty line) non-citizen children and adults utilize Medicaid, SNAP, cash assistance, and SSI at a generally lower rate than comparable low-income native-born citizen children and adults, and the average value of public benefits received per person is generally lower for non-citizens than for natives. Because of the lower benefit utilization rates and the lower average benefit value for low-income non-citizen immigrants, the cost of public benefits to non citizens is substantially less than the cost of equivalent benefits to the native-born.

Background on Immigrants in the United States
About 40 million immigrants reside in the United States, comprising 12.9 percent of the total population.3 Of those immigrants, 43.8 percent are naturalized citizens and 56.3 percent are non-citizens—including undocumented immigrants.4 Immigrants are more likely to participate in the labor force,5 lack a high school degree,6 and to have incomes below the poverty line than the native-born.7 Immigrants begin with lower earnings but over time their incomes improve as they remain here.8

Immigrant Eligibility for Public Assistance Benefits
Immigrants’ eligibility for public benefits is based on specific aspects of their immigration status and state policies.9 Some key elements of the rules are: