E.g., 12/03/2023
E.g., 12/03/2023
Immigrants and Welfare Use

Immigrants and Welfare Use

This Spotlight examines the eligibility of immigrants for welfare as provided for in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. These rules were subsequently modified (see "Immigrants, Welfare Reform, and the Coming Reauthorization Vote" by Audrey Singer), but the significant changes made under the PRWORA make it worth examining in detail.


The PRWORA was passed with bipartisan support under the Clinton administration, and dramatically reformed the nation's welfare system. A specific provision, Title IV, changed the eligibility of noncitizens for public assistance. In addition to income, eligibility for major federal benefits was linked to immigration status and whether the applicant arrived before Aug. 22, 1996, which was the date the law was enacted. Specifically, PRWORA provides for the following:

  • Legal permanent residents (LPRs) who were residents of the United States as of Aug. 22, 1996, are barred from receiving food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Each state, however, is allowed to offer LPRs Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid. Since 1997, states have been mandated to provide State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) coverage to immigrant children legally in the U.S. before Aug. 22, 1996.
  • LPRs entering after Aug. 22, 1996 are not eligible for food stamps or SSI. However, they can apply for Medicaid and TANF benefits five years after entering the country legally, and are then allowed benefits at each state's discretion. States may use the maintenance of effort requirement to serve post-1996 legal immigrants who would be eligible for TANF if not for the five-year bar. In addition, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 restored immigrants' access to food stamps.
  • Refugees and asylees are eligible for benefits seven years after their date of entry.
  • Nonimmigrants and undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving benefits. They are eligible, however, for public health, emergency services, and programs identified by the attorney general as necessary for the protection of life and safety.

    (Sources: Richardson and Wassem 2002, National Conference of State Legislators).

Immigrant Participation and Eligibility

Geographic Distribution of Benefits

Impact of Welfare Reform on Immigrant Families

Characteristics of Immigrant Welfare Recipients

Immigrant Participation and Eligibility

  • Approximately 935,000 noncitizens lost benefits due to the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. Half of immigrant families were poor in 1999. (Fix and Passel 2002).
  • Under PRWORA, three populations of noncitizens are eligible for public assistance: refugees during their first five to seven years in the U.S.; immigrants with 40 quarters of work history; and noncitizens who have served in the U.S. military. (Fix and Passel 2002).
  • Between 1994 and 1999, legal immigrants' and refugees' use of welfare benefits declined significantly. This decline was not accounted for by an increase in the number of naturalizations or by rising incomes within immigrant families. (Source: Fix and Passel 2002).

    For LPRs, the percentage of reductions in usage were:

    TANF: -60%
    Food stamps: -48%
    Social security insurance: -32%
    Medicaid: -15%

    For refugees, the declines were as follows:

    TANF: -78%
    Food stamps: -53%
    Medicaid: -36%

  • At the time of PRWORA's passage in 1996, immigrants represented 15 percent of all welfare recipients in the U.S.. By 1999, that number dropped to 12 percent. (Fix and Passel 2002, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
  • In 1994, 7.1 percent of households headed by a foreign-born person received AFDC cash assistance (later incorporated into TANF) and 12.6 percent received food stamps; in 1999, 3.2 percent received TANF cash assistance and 6.7 percent received food stamps. (Fix and Passel 2002, Fremstad 2002).
  • Under a 1997 congressional revision to PRWORA, elderly and disabled immigrants were made eligible for Social Security, Medicaid and food stamp benefits. Legal immigrant children are also eligible for food stamps. The revision excludes adults of working age (18-64) who account for approximately three-quarters of the 935,000 noncitizens who lost benefits. (Fix and Passel 2002).

Geographic Distribution of Benefits

  • After PRWORA was enacted, the majority of states continued to provide federally funded benefits to immigrants if they had the option to do so. All states chose to continue TANF benefits for LPRs who entered before the law's enactment, and all states except Wyoming provide Medicaid benefits. Five states (Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas) do not provide TANF for legal immigrants entering after the law's enactment and who have been living here for five years, and seven states (Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming) do not provide Medicaid benefits. (Source: Fremstad, 2002).
  • Of the seven largest immigrant-receiving states which account for three-quarters of the nation's foreign-born population (California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and Arizona), California provides the most extensive benefits in the areas of health, cash assistance, and nutrition to immigrants. Whereas pre-enactment immigrants are subsidized by federal funds, the benefits of post-enactment immigrants are financed solely through state funds. (Source: Fix and Passel 2002).
  • Nine states (New York, Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wyoming) still allow undocumented immigrants to access their state health insurance programs after welfare reform. Only one state (Maine) that had previously covered undocumented immigrants before the passage of the reform withdrew benefits after PRWORA was enacted. (Source: Zimmerman and Tumlin 1999).
  • In 1999-2000, 13 percent of low-income, noncitizen families in Los Angeles, California and 22 percent in New York City received food stamps, compared with 34 percent of low-income native citizen families in each of these states. (Source: Capps et. al 2002).

Impact of Welfare Reform on Immigrant Families

  • In the 23 states that provide the least amount of support for immigrants, food insecurity within immigrant households increased between 1994 and 1998. In 1993-1994, 11.3 percent of households headed by immigrants were food insecure (meaning that the household had members who were hungry or had to either skip or cut back on meals because of lack of income), compared to 16.3 percent in 1997-1998. In these same states, the percentage of food-insecure households headed by native-born persons fell. (Fremstad 2002).
  • By 1997, noncitizen families with incomes below 200 percent of poverty had welfare use rates that were significantly lower than citizens' rates?14.5 percent versus 17.9 percent. (Fix and Passel 1999)
  • Between 1995 and 2000, the number of noncitizen children and noncitizen parents receiving Medicaid fell by seven to eight percentage points. At the same time, the percentage of low-income, noncitizen children and parents who lack health insurance, including job-based insurance, increased by six to seven percentage points. (Fremstad 2002).
  • Between 1994 and 1999, low-income LPR families with children receiving TANF decreased by 53 percent, and refugee families receiving TANF decreased by 78 percent. (Fix and Passel 2002).
  • While the number of naturalized citizen families increased by 480,000 between 1994 and 1999, the number participating in TANF dropped by 300,000. There were only 16,000 new enrollments. At the same time, the foreign-born population grew from 24.5 million in 1995 to 28.4 million in 2000. (Fix and Passel 2002).

Characteristics of Immigrant Welfare Recipients

  • Sixty-nine percent of foreign-born adult TANF recipients do not have a high school diploma or GED (General Education Development high school equivalency diploma), compared with 37 percent of native-born adult recipients. (Fremstad 2002).
  • In two of the largest immigrant-receiving cities in the country, New York City and Los Angeles, immigrants with limited English proficiency are poorer than immigrant adults overall. In Los Angeles, the poverty rate is 33 percent for immigrants with limited English language proficiency versus 13 percent for those who speak English well, while in New York City the poverty rate is 34 percent versus 14 percent. (Capps et. al 2002).


Capps, Randy et.al., "How are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?: Preliminary Evidence from Los Angeles and New York City," (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2002).

Fix, Michael and Jeffrey Passel, "The Scope and Impact of Welfare Reform's Immigrant Provisions," (Washington, D.C: The Urban Institute, 2002).

Fix, Michael and Jeffrey Passel, "Trends in Noncitizens' and Citizens' Use of Public Benefits Following Welfare Reform: 1994-97," (Washington, D.C. : The Urban Institute, 1999).

Fremstad, Shawn, "Immigrants and Welfare Reauthorization," (Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 4, 2002).

Richardson, Joe and Ruth Ellen Wasem, "Noncitizen Eligibility for Major Federal Public Assistance Programs: Policies and Legislation" (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2002).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program," report to Congress, Washington, D.C. August 2002.

Zimmermann, Wendy and Karen Tumlin, "Patchwork Policies: State Assistance for Immigrants Under Welfare Reform," (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 1999).