Commentary, TANF 20 Years Later

Punishing immigrants for being immigrants: Another component of U.S. welfare “reform” hits age 20

TANF-4002This is the third blog post in a series that will detail how lawmakers have weakened Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) over the past 20 years, explain why TANF is a cautionary tale rather than a model for other work and income support programs, and map out a better way forward.

Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem, engraved on the Statue of Liberty welcoming the “poor, [the] huddled masses…the homeless” to America has never been reflective of a truly open stance toward the poor immigrants arriving at our shores. In fact, a year before Lazarus wrote her poem, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1882, banning immigrants who were likely to become “public charges” or drains on the system. We have historically welcomed the poor if they are here to work, but not if they need temporary government assistance to raise their families and become economically secure in a new country.

Undocumented immigrants and those coming over on most temporary visas have always been excluded from our safety net assistance programs such as cash welfare, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and public housing. But the 1996 welfare reform law brought a new level of restrictions that excluded millions of legal permanent residents from accessing welfare and other benefits. The 1996 law instituted a new “five year bar,” which states that even if a person has entered the country lawfully as a legal permanent resident, he or she is barred from receiving federal public benefits (including cash assistance, SNAP, and Medicaid) for the first five years of lawful status.

The 1996 law also bars millions of other lawfully present immigrants from receiving the vast majority of public benefits, because they do not fall into the very narrow definition of a “qualified” immigrant.  To give one example, immigrants from certain countries are granted Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) if their country suffers a major war, natural disaster, or other event that makes it impossible to return.  Some immigrants may live and work under this status lawfully for decades in the U.S., but they will never be eligible for federally-funded cash welfare, food assistance or Medicaid if they fall on hard times.

Many immigrants who need work and income supports are working immigrants—their language barriers and education levels often force them into jobs that don’t pay a living wage: domestic work, restaurant work, food processing, and seasonal work in agriculture or construction. Additionally, even immigrants who come here intending to work face unexpected life emergencies, like all of us. They may be laid off or be unable to find work, they may suffer health problems or become disabled, have children and need to stay home, or otherwise be unable to fully support themselves without temporary help that will allow them to make ends meet and regain their footing on the economic ladder. Immigrants in those circumstances who are not eligible for medical benefits may delay care until illnesses have progressed to a critical stage that is costlier to treat.

Lastly, in many cases there is no meaningful difference between those like TPS holders and DACA youth who spend decades living and working lawfully here in the U.S., and the lawfully present immigrants and citizens who are considered “qualified immigrants” and thus do qualify for benefits under the 1996 distinctions. While they work and pay taxes into our system like citizens, the 1996 law ensures that large numbers of “non-qualified” but lawfully present  immigrants don’t receive even the minimal safety net assurances that other low-income Americans receive. This hurts families and local economies.

At a minimum, the welfare laws should be reformed to eliminate or reduce arbitrary time bars on assistance to immigrants. From a broader perspective, solutions to the 1996 law could take a number of forms. First and foremost, all workers should be paid a living wage so that it’s not necessary for working immigrants to rely on safety net benefits to feed their families and pay the rent. The Department of Labor also needs to enforce the wage laws vigorously so that proper wages are paid. Second, policy fixes could be made to either the 1996 law itself to expand critical public benefits such as Medicaid and SNAP to wider categories of immigrants, or reforms could be made to the immigration system itself to allow those who come to contribute to our nation to have some chance at a path to citizenship. It’s only fair that those who pay taxes, contribute, and work hard just like citizens should have access to temporary help when it is needed.

For more reading on this topic:

  • Broder, Tanya, et. al. “Overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programs,” National Immigration Law Center, rev. Dec. 2015, available here.
  • Boswell, Richard. “Restrictions on Non-citizens’ Access to Public Benefits:  Flawed Premise, Unnecessary Response,” 42 UCLA L. Rev. 1475 (1995),  available here.
  • Fix, Michael, “The Legacies of Welfare Reform’s Immigrant Restrictions,” Urban Institute, August 1998, available here.

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