Immigration and the Food Stamp Program

Year: 1999

Research Center: Joint Center for Poverty Research, University of Chicago and Northwestern University

Investigator: Borjas, George J.

Institution: Harvard University

Project Contact:
George J. Borjas
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1393, fax 617-495-9532


The growth of the welfare state in the past few decades coincided with the resurgence of large-scale immigration to the United States, adding a new and explosive question to the already contentious debate over immigration policy: Do immigrants “pay their way” in the welfare state? The available empirical evidence suggests that immigrant participation in cash benefit programs has risen dramatically since 1970. Congress reacted to this trend by enacting welfare reform legislation in 1996 that denied noncitizens many types of means-tested assistance, including food stamps.

Because of data constraints, much of the research analyzing immigrant participation in welfare programs investigates the extent to which immigrants enroll in cash benefit programs, with little attention paid to the trends and determinants of immigrant participation in other programs. This paper uses data from the 1970 to 1990 decennial censuses, the 1984-85 and 1990-91 Survey of Income and Program Participation, and the 1994-97 Current Population Surveys (CPS) to analyze trends in immigrant participation in the Food Stamp Program. The study describes the differential trends in immigrant and native participation in the Food Stamp Program, explores the factors that cause these differential trends, and examines the extent to which immigrant participation in public assistance programs affects the propensity of the second generation to receive food stamps.

The data suggest that the immigrant-native gap in participation rates in the Food Stamp Program widened until about 1995. Since 1995, there has been a decline in the number of both native and immigrant households that receive food stamps, but the decline has been steeper in the immigrant population. Borjas estimates a regression relating participation in the Food Stamp Program to immigrant status, period effects (for years 1994-97), and a vector of socioeconomic characteristics including age of household head and members, educational attainment of household head, and State of residence. His results show that a large part of the gap in participation rates between immigrant and native households can be attributed to differences in socioeconomic characteristics between the two groups, particularly educational attainment. Further, he argues that because declines in immigrant participation began before and continued concurrent with the enactment of welfare reforms restricting immigrant access to Food Stamps, his results are not consistent with the view that welfare reform caused the narrowing gap in participation rates. Using data from the CPS for 1995- 97, Borjas finds that immigrant households had much higher entry rates into the Food Stamp Program, but roughly the same exit rates. He notes, however, that these figures may not be indicative of other periods because of welfare reform. In a third model using 1970 Census and pooled 1995-98 CPS data, Borjas finds a strong link between the use of cash benefits in the immigrant generation and the use of food stamps among the second generation, controlling for socioeconomic characteristics and 1970 educational attainment and wages.

Noting the data limitations to conducting such a study prior to 1994, Borjas concludes by looking forward to the increased capacity for understanding more about immigrant participation in food stamps and other assistance programs now that immigrant status along with program participation is collected annually as part of the CPS.