Food Stamp Program Participation of Refugees and Immigrants: Measurement Error Correction for Immigrant Status

Year: 2002

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Bollinger, Chris, and Paul Hagstrom

Institution: University of Kentucky

Project Contact:
Chris Bollinger
University of Kentucky
Department of Economics
Lexington, KY 40506


After two decades of increasing participation in cash and noncash public assistance programs by immigrant households, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 drastically altered the availability of Federal public assistance to legal immigrants. Immigrants who were not yet naturalized by 1996 or who entered the country after August 1996 became ineligible for Federal benefits, although States had the option to provide them with cash assistance or Medicaid benefits. Refugees, however, were given a 5-year exemption from the eligibility restrictions on Federal benefits that applied to other legal immigrants. Despite the exemption, since 1996, the participation rate of refugees in public assistance programs, such as the Food Stamp Program (FSP), has fallen at least as fast as for other foreign-born residents. FSP participation of refugees fell 37 percent between 1994 and 1997. During the same period, participation in the FSP dropped 30 percent for immigrants and 21 percent for native-born citizens.

The authors used the Current Population Survey to estimate the impact of refugee status on FSP participation from 1994 to 2001 and estimated the effect of PRWORA on FSP participation of refugees. They corrected for errors in the measurement of refugee status and for the misreporting of FSP participation, which allowed them to get consistent estimates of the effect of refugee status and PRWORA on FSP participation.

The study found that refugees and non-refugee immigrants have distinct patterns of FSP participation. Refugees are more likely than other immigrants to use food stamps near the time of their arrival in the U.S. However, the FSP participation rate of refugees declines with the number of years since their arrival in the U.S., whereas this decline does not occur among non-refugee immigrants. The FSP participation rate of refugees is more sensitive to the economic climate than that of other immigrants or of U.S. citizens. The authors also found differences in program use by citizenship status. Immigrants who opt for citizenship are more likely to participate in welfare programs than those who do not.

Even though FSP participation fell 37 percent between 1994 and 1997, welfare reform does not appear to have had the unintended consequence of reducing FSP participation among refugees. The study results suggest that food stamp use among refugees is primarily explained by their response to favorable economic conditions, rather than to welfare reform.

The authors found that the usual approach to measuring refugee status leads to a substantial underestimate of the effect of refugee status on participation in the FSP. Additionally, the failure to account for response error in program participation causes an underestimate of the effects of all variables on participation. The methods used in this study can be applied in research on program participation, to correct for these measurement problems and to ensure that research findings will be useful to policy analysis.