New Publication Explains the Gap in Welfare Use Among Immigrants and Natives in the United State

March 04, 2021

In the United States, the Welfare Reform in 1996 dramatically changed welfare participation rules by imposing restrictions on immigrant welfare use. Using data from 1995 to 2018, Huang and colleagues’ new publication investigates the effects of demographic factors, macroeconomic trends, and policies on the welfare participation gap between immigrants and natives in the US.

This study covers 24 years of data, spanning times of economic recessions and recoveries, changes in welfare policy regimes, and policies towards immigrants. The authors found that immigrants’ participation in means-tested programs would have been much less overall and greatly below those of natives, after adjusting for individual characteristics such as educational attainment. This article is published in Population Research and Policy Review, a leading interdisciplinary international journal of population research.

The study also found that business cycles impact immigrant and native welfare participation differently. Immigrant participation in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, and State Children’s Health Insurance Program are more sensitive to the business cycle than native participation, providing some evidence that immigrant “dependence” on safety net programs is temporary and closely linked to the economy.

The lead author, Xiaoning Huang, is a doctoral candidate at Columbia School of Social Work and a fellow at Columbia China Center for Social Policy. The coauthors are Dr. Neeraj Kaushal, professor at Columbia School of Social Work, and Dr. Julia Shu-Huah Wang, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and an associate at Columbia China Center for Social Policy.

On the policy front, the analysis suggests that program eligibility explains only a modest proportion of the overall immigrant-native gap in welfare use. This finding offers an alternate perspective to supplement previous research that has found substantial impacts of policy on welfare use. While the restrictive welfare policies can significantly influence welfare use, the rules are not as consequential as an individual and household characteristics in “explaining” the difference in immigrant and native households’ welfare participation.

These findings underline the limits of restrictive welfare policies, advocate for better social safety net programs to protect immigrants and their children from economic downturns and adverse health events, and support inclusive policies such as DACA and the DREAM Act to invest in immigrants’ human capital development.

Read the Article: What Explains the Gap in Welfare Use Among Immigrants and Natives?

Columbia Affiliations
China Center for Social Policy