The Corner

Immigration + Welfare = Bad News

Robert Rector’s piece today on Obama’s latest unconstitutional usurpation — this time, ending welfare reform as we know it — reminded me of the central role immigration played in the original debate in Congress over welfare reform in 1995–96. (For young people who don’t remember, “Congress” used to be the place where laws were debated and passed, back before it assumed the role of the Roman Senate under Diocletian.) The claim at the time was that close to half the projected savings from welfare reform would come from the limits on legal immigrants’ access to taxpayer-funded benefits.

While welfare reform overall was a great success, the projections regarding immigrants didn’t pan out. The immediate reasons for the failure of the immigrant portion of welfare reform were laid out by George Borjas: Immigrant-heavy states picked up the slack by extending benefits to immigrants, and the immigrant groups most dependent on welfare before the reform saw the largest increases in naturalization rates (enabling them to escape the welfare restrictions specific to non-citizens).

#more#Also, the longstanding requirement that immigrants not be admitted in the first place if they’re “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” (known as the “public charge” doctrine) has been gutted in a way that’s almost comical. According to the immigration service, “non-cash or special purpose cash benefits” are not considered when determining whether an immigrant has become a public charge. That means an immigrant family could be living in public housing, receiving food stamps, on Medicaid, and having their children eat three free meals a day at school and they wouldn’t be considered “primarily dependent” on the government!

But even if we entered Bizarro World, where we are able to enforce all the limitations people have proposed on immigrant access to welfare, it still wouldn’t eliminate the problem. A new, detailed profile of the immigration population by my colleague Steve Camarota suggests why this must necessarily be the case if we continue mass immigration, no matter what prophylactic measures we take. The basic problem is that in a modern, post-industrial, knowledge-intensive economy, people with low levels of education (who will always account for the bulk of any large-scale immigration flow) just can’t earn enough money to provide for themselves and their children, no matter how many jobs they hold down. As Steve writes:

Nor does the relatively high use of welfare programs reflect a lack of work on the part of immigrants. In 2010, 84.2 percent of immigrant households had at least one worker, compared to 75.8 percent of native households. Work in no way precludes welfare use, particularly use of the non-cash programs.

And non-cash programs are the whole game — Medicaid alone costs more than all other welfare, cash and non-cash, combined. In fact, the whole point of our welfare system is to support the working poor who have children — which is a pretty good description of our immigrant population.

You can read the numbers for yourself, but here are a few: Of households headed by a Mexican immigrant, 57 percent use at least one welfare program; the number is 50 percent for Central Americans. On the other hand, welfare use for immigrants from India is 14 percent, and it’s 19 percent for Filipinos. (Even those numbers are kind of disturbing.) This doesn’t mean Indians and Filipinos are better than Mexicans or Salvadorans, just that the ones who come here are more educated, thus they earn more and are less likely to need or qualify for welfare. That said, even at any given level of education, immigrants make heavier use of taxpayer-funded benefits: Nine percent of households headed by a native-born college graduate use welfare, as opposed to more than 16 percent of households headed by an immigrant college graduate.

As Milton Friedman said, “it’s just obvious that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” An immigration maximalist might respond that we therefore need to get rid of the welfare state. Let me know when you succeed — in the meantime, the sooner we curb mass immigration the better.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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