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Manuela Tobias
By Manuela Tobias January 29, 2018

Are 55 percent of immigrants in California on welfare? That's an exaggeration

Former Trump Hispanic advisory council president Steve Cortes used a questionable statistic to portray Californian immigrants as a drain on government funds.

"We have right now, and this is not my talking point, per The L.A. Times, in the state of California, 55 percent of all immigrants are on public assistance," Cortes said on CNN’s Erin Burnett Outfront.

"Let's start doing it right," Cortes continued. "Merit based. Control the border, allow the DACA people to stay. There is a reasonable compromise here."

Cortes referred us to a Los Angeles Times op-ed, not report, entitled "Why is liberal California the poverty capital of America?" We tracked the statistic back to a September 2015 study from Steven Camarota at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors low-immigration levels.

We’ve previously rated Mostly True the claim that "half of all immigrant households receive benefits from our social welfare system," also sourced back to this study.

Cortes said that 55 percent of immigrants in California benefit from welfare, but the CIS report looks at immigrant households. There’s a distinction here, as immigrant households are defined as being headed by a foreign-born person.

The immigrant might not always be receiving the benefit, as with households in which a U.S.-born child qualifies for a benefit, while their undocumented or newly arrived immigrant parent does not. Undocumented immigrants cannot access most services, and a 1996 law restricts immigrants from public benefits during their first five years as a "qualified alien".

Westy Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College, added that California’s more generous public assistance system means more people more receive aid than they would in most states.

The data comes from the 2012 Survey of Income and Program Participation, the latest and most reliable source of welfare statistics according to George Borjas, an immigration expert at Harvard University.

When he ran the 2017 California numbers using the Current Population Survey, he found that 41 percent of immigrant households receive public assistance, whereas 24 percent of native households do. In 2012, 49.5 percent of immigrant and 25.3 percent native households received government assistance in California.

Government assistance

Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said the report considers programs most people might not think as government assistance or welfare, including school lunches and Medicaid.

School lunch is a nutrition program, and it’s not always means-tested, so some schools in low-income areas provide free or reduced lunches to all students, Capps explained.

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"Medicaid is health insurance that goes with income eligibility that go way up beyond the poverty level in California," Capps said. "They have workers in these families, so it’s not like it’s an alternative to work, it’s just that they have jobs that don’t carry health care benefits."

Unauthorized immigrants are not eligible for Medicaid, so Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, questioned whether American-born children using Medicaid should be lumped into the category of immigrants receiving welfare.

"That’s a key difference, because the policy alternative would be to tell U.S.-born kids who are the children of immigrants that they can’t, for example, access the CHIP program," Pastor said.

Removing food assistance and Medicaid from the calculation shrunk the statistic significantly. Doing so showed 16.3 percent of immigrant households received cash benefits while 12.8 percent of native-born households did, and 6.1 percent of native households received public or subsidized housing, while 5.8 percent of immigrant households did.

"It would almost certainly reduce the share of households using welfare for both immigrants and natives," Camarota said. "But, by how much I am not sure. Perhaps the rates would be something like 40 percent versus 20 percent."

Households v. Immigrants

Camarota said he measured households because the income of all persons in a household determines if one can get TANF or SNAP, and other household members benefit if they don’t have to pay for, say, a child’s health insurance.

"Examining welfare use by households is, in effect, examining welfare use for immigrants and their kids versus natives and their kids," Camarota said. "The key policy question is, can immigrants support themselves and their children? High welfare use is an indication that they cannot."

The report does not correct for income, lumping in high-income native-born and immigrant households. Myungkook Joo and Jeounghee Kim took a closer look and concluded that poor immigrant families use less welfare than poor native families.

Our ruling

Cortes said, "We have right now … in the state of California, 55 percent of all immigrants are on public assistance."

That’s true of households but not individual immigrants, in 2012, a study found. The Current Population Survey found a lower amount, that 41 percent of immigrant households in California relied on welfare.

Government assistance is broadly defined to include school lunch and Medicaid. The discrepancy in what may ordinarily be considered welfare, like cash and housing assistance, was much lower between native and immigrant households in California.

In the absence of clearer definitions of public assistance and the distinction between immigrants and immigrant households, Cortes’ claim exaggerates immigrants’ drain on public coffers.

We rate this statement Half True.

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Half True
"We have right now, … in the state of California, 55 percent of all immigrants are on public assistance."
In an interview
Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Our Sources

CNN, Erin Burnett Outfront, Jan. 23, 2018

Email interview, Steve Cortes, national spokesman for the Hispanic 100 and CNN contributor, Jan. 24, 2018

LA Times, Why is liberal California the poverty capital of America?, Jan. 14, 2018, Welfare Use by Immigrant and Native Households, Sept. 10, 2015

PolitiFact, Perdue cites data on immigrant households benefiting from social welfare programs, Aug. 14, 2017

PolitiFact, Trump says 'time has come' for law restricting federal assistance to immigrants. It already exists, June 27, 2017

Email interview, George Borjas. labor economist at the Harvard Kennedy School specializing in immigration issues, Jan. 25, 2018

Phone interview, Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, Jan. 24, 2018

Email interview, Westy Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College, Jan. 24, 2018

Email interview, Manuel Pastor, director of USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, Jan. 24, 2018

Email interview, Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, Jan. 25, 2018

Email interview, Gretchen Donehower, demographer at the University of California, Berkeley, Jan. 25, 2018

Email interview, Jennifer Hunt, James Cullen Chair in Economics at Rutgers University, Jan. 25, 2018, The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration, 2017

Cato Institute, Center for Immigration Studies Report Exaggerates Immigrant Welfare Use, Sept. 2, 2015

Cato Institute, The Fiscal Impact of Immigration, July 23, 2014

Cato Institute, Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens, Feb. 2017

Email interview, Carolina Gamero, communications coordinator at California Immigrant Policy Center, Jan. 25, 2018

Email interview, Kim Rueben, senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, Jan. 25, 2018

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