The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 29, 2001
October 292, 2001
VOL. 31, NO. 9


Welfare Report: Native-born Kids of Noncitizens Less Likely to Get Cash Aid

By Jessica Valdez

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Native-born children of noncitizen immigrants are less likely to receive cash assistance from the government than children of native-born parents, according to a Johns Hopkins researcher and lead author of a new report on the subject.

As legal citizens, all children born in the United States are eligible for government benefits. However, a survey of 2,402 mother-child pairs living in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio shows that many native-born children of noncitizen immigrants do not receive all the benefits to which they are entitled.

"Three-fourths of all the children of immigrants were born in the United States and are eligible for benefits," says sociologist Andrew Cherlin, the Benjamin H. Griswold Professor of Public Policy and the lead investigator of Welfare, Children and Families: A Three-City Study. "We found that they're not getting cash welfare at nearly the same rate as citizens' children."

Passed in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act severely restricted benefits to immigrants. Subsequent legislation restored benefits in limited circumstances.

"Some are concerned that welfare reform has created two classes of U.S.-born children of immigrants: those whose parents are not citizens and will receive limited benefits, and those whose parents are citizens and will receive full benefits," the report states.

However, children of noncitizen immigrants studied in Boston and San Antonio were just as likely to receive noncash assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid, as children of U.S. citizens. Researchers speculate that immigrants fear that the receipt of cash assistance will inhibit them in obtaining citizenship.

"The application for something as immediately concrete as cash assistance is clearly admitting dependency," says Ronald Angel, a researcher involved in the Three-City Study and a professor and health policy analyst in the University of Texas Department of Sociology and Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. "Immigration policy has always discriminated against those likely to become public charges, and the acceptance of cash is a real admission that one has become such a person."

Noncash assistance is perceived as less threatening to immigrants since the Immigration and Naturalization Service cannot consider receipt of noncash assistance in the determination of whether an applicant is a public charge. Medicaid and food stamps are also easier to obtain, with less bureaucratic thickets to navigate, Cherlin says.

In Chicago, a gap between children of noncitizen immigrants and those of native-born parents exists in noncash assistance as well. "Chicago's immigrant population is new and may not be as aware of the kind of benefits available," Cherlin says.

If he were asked whether it might be possible to change things, Angel says, "my answer would be to reduce the stigma of cash assistance. Unfortunately, the stigma is no accident," he says. "The message with cash assistance is that we don't want you to apply for it. There really is no constituency ready to fight for cash assistance for immigrants."

The study is based on a 1999 survey of children and their caregivers through personal interviews. The complete report can be found at the Three-City Study Web site at