SNAP Take-up Among Immigrant Families with Children

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This is an excerpt from the full report.


Immigration is rapidly changing the face of young America. More than one child in four aged 18 years old or younger was either born abroad or lived with a foreign-born parent in 2009 and this ratio is expected to rise to one in three by the year 2020. The number of children in immigrant families nearly doubled between 1990 and 2007 compared to growth of only three percent in the number of children living with native-born parents.

Immigrant families in the United States tend to be stable and hardworking. A higher percentage of immigrant-family children lives in two-parent families and a higher percentage lives with a parent who works full-time, compared to native-family children. Children of immigrants are more likely to be born healthier than children of native-born parents and are more likely to live in an extended family that can provide childcare and other household support. At least through middle school, children of immigrants tend to have higher educational aspirations, to spend more time working on homework and to perform better in school than those with native-born parents.

At the same time, immigrant-family children are much more likely to experience economic deprivation than native-family children. In 2009, some 24 percent of children in immigrant families lived below the official poverty line and 51 percent below double the poverty line; the respective figures for children in native families were 18 and 38 percent. Although labor force participation and employment rates are very high among immigrant fathers, many work in low-wage jobs.5 Among immigrants, about 29 percent of children lived in a low-income working family in 2009 compared to 17 percent of native-family children. Research shows that the immigrant-family child poverty rate is negatively associated with parental education, English proficiency, length of U.S. residence, and citizenship status. In 2009, almost onequarter of all children in immigrant families lived in “linguistically isolated” families in which no household member over age 14 speaks the English language very well. Moreover, 53 percent of immigrant-family children lived with at least one parent who had not graduated from high school, compared to 44 percent of native-family children.

Growing up under economic deprivation is associated with a host of negative outcomes for children in the United States. Children raised in poor families are more likely than other children to lack health insurance; suffer from chronic health problems, such as asthma and vision, hearing and speech problems; have higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and aggressive behavior; underperform on cognitive tests and in the classroom and achieve much lower rates of high school graduation and college attendance; and to remain poor as adults, often starting a new generation of poor families.

For poor and low-income families with children in the United States, the social safety net of income and work supports provided by the federal, state and local governments offers critical assistance in meeting basic needs. But research shows that immigrant families eligible for some important benefits – such as housing assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as the food stamp program) – tend to access them at significantly lower rates than do native families. A wide range of hypotheses have been advanced to explain this relatively lower “take-up rate,” including a lack of knowledge about the programs and their eligibility criteria, burdensome program enrollment and compliance requirements (high “transactions costs”), social stigma and cultural resistance, fear of government among both legal and undocumented immigrants, and fear of jeopardizing the family’s residential status or eligibility for citizenship in the United States. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) sharply curtailed legal immigrants’ eligibility for several important benefit programs, including SNAP, and although eligibility standards were subsequently liberalized for certain categories of immigrants, they remain complicated and not easily understood.

This descriptive report identifies traits among low-income, immigrant families that may bear on SNAP participation rates and suggests ways in which state program administrators can improve their outreach and other administrative procedures to better reach these needy families. Drawing on household data from the 2009 American Community Survey and administrative data from the SNAP program, the analysis compares selected demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of immigrant families participating and not participating in the SNAP program with those of native families. The report examines federal and state efforts to improve take-up and concludes with policy recommendations for state program administrators to raise program participation among immigrant families with children.

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