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One argument supporters make for limiting legal immigration is that a significant share end up on social welfare programs.
"The majority come here on family-based visas, without regard to their skills or our needs. As a result, half of all immigrant households receive benefits from our social welfare system," wrote Sen. David Perdue in an Aug. 8 op-ed in USA Today, co-bylined with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
Perdue and Cotton sponsored the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, or RAISE Act, which President Donald Trump has endorsed. Currently, the country accepts about 1 million new immigrants a year.
Research has found that about 50 percent of households headed by an immigrant (living here legally or illegally) do benefit from government assistance programs. In many of those households, it’s a U.S.-born child who is eligible for a program.
Perdue’s and Cotton’s offices told us their claim relied on a September 2015 study from Steven Camarota at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors low-immigration levels.
Using data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, the study found that in 2012, 51 percent of immigrant-headed households (living here legally or illegally) reported having used at least one welfare program during the year, compared with 30 percent of native-born households.
The study factored in the following programs: Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); Women, Infants, and Children food program (WIC); free or subsidized school lunches; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as the Food Stamp program); Medicaid, and public housing and rent subsidies.
The report said a household was using welfare if any member used a program during 2012.
An immigrant household included foreign-born individuals (such as naturalized U.S. citizens, green card holders and unauthorized immigrants) as well as U.S.-born children who were eligible for a welfare program. Some immigrant households also had members who were native-born adults.
Though there is a 1996 law restricting immigrants from public benefits during their first five years as a "qualified alien" (the classification includes lawful permanent residents), the majority of authorized immigrants have been here for more than five years, the study said. As a result, that law "has only a modest impact on the share of immigrant households receiving one or more welfare programs," Camarota wrote.
Compared with native-born individuals, immigrants have higher levels of poverty primarily because they are relatively less likely to be employed and on average earn lower wages, and it takes time for the newly arrived "to move up the job ladder and for the poor among them to lift themselves and their children out of poverty," said a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Leighton Ku, a health policy professor and director of the Center for Health Policy Research at George Washington University, criticized the report from the Center for Immigration Studies for using an overly broad definition of benefits that most people probably would not think as welfare.
All school lunches, for example, get some federal subsidy, whether full price or not, Ku said. "Does this mean that all school children are getting welfare?" he asked.
Ku in 2013 co-authored a paper concluding that low-income immigrants use public benefits at a lower rate than low-income native-born citizens. Ku’s and Camarota’s methodology differed. For instance, Ku’s analysis focused on individuals by immigration status, not on households headed by immigrants.
Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, told us that the school lunch program isn’t like other programs traditionally considered welfare.
It’s a nutrition program, and does not have the same work, citizenship or other requirements that actual welfare programs do. And it’s not always means-tested, as for example some schools in low-income areas provide free or reduced lunches to all students," she said.
But excluding school lunch recipients doesn’t change the numbers that much. Camarota in his study said that if subsidized school lunch was excluded from the equation, welfare use for immigrant households would be 46 percent (compared with 28 percent for native households). That’s only slightly lower than Perdue’s claim that about "half" of immigrant households receive welfare benefits.
The National Academies report found similar numbers of about 45 percent when looking at various public benefits. It examined benefits used by immigrant and U.S.-born households, both with children. The report found that "cash assistance" such as SSI and TANF was low for both sets of households, around 6 percent.
"Cash assistance is what we generally think of as ‘welfare’ for households with children in which the adults cannot work or have difficulty finding jobs," Mittelstadt said.
But food assistance and Medicaid participation was much higher for immigrant households than for U.S.-born households, she said. About 45 percent of immigrant households had food assistance and 46 percent Medicaid, according to the report.
Perdue said, "Half of all immigrant households receive benefits from our social welfare system."
Cash assistance for immigrants is very low, about 6 percent, but there are other programs from which immigrants benefit, and Perdue cited benefits broadly. Research from the Center for Immigration Studies found that in 2012, 51 percent of immigrant-headed households (living here legally or illegally) reported to have used at least one welfare program during the year.
That percentage includes a broad definition of welfare, including school lunch. Excluding subsidized school lunches, welfare use for immigrant households would be 46 percent, according to the study.
The study included as welfare beneficiaries immigrant households in which a U.S.-born child is benefitting from a welfare program. Another report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that 45 percent of immigrant households had food assistance and 46 percent had Medicaid.
Perdue’s statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.
USA Today, Op-ed Sens. Cotton and Perdue: Our immigration plan is pro-worker and pro-growth, Aug. 8, 2017
PolitiFact, Trump-O-Mete: Limit legal immigration, last updated Aug. 2, 2017
Center for Immigration Studies, Welfare Use by Immigrant and Native Households, Sept. 10, 2015
Phone interview, Steven Camarota, Center for Immigration Studies’ director of research, Aug. 10, 2017
Email interview, Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at Migration Policy Institute, Aug. 10, 2017
Email interview, Leighton Ku, a health policy professor and director of the Center for Health Policy Research at George Washington University, Aug. 9, 2017
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Summary of immigrant eligibility restrictions under current law, as of Feb. 25, 2009
PolitiFact, Trump says 'time has come' for law restricting federal assistance to immigrants. It already exists, June 27, 2017
Cato Institute, Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens, March 4, 2013
USDA.gov, National School Lunch Program
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration (2017) Chapter: 3 Socioeconomic Outcomes of Immigrants
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