Welfare Reform and Immigrants

President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) into law in August 1996. This landmark law ended the sixty-year guarantee of a safety net for poor children and families by transforming the federal entitlement of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) into a state-run, block-grant program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). PRWORA (also referred to as the Welfare Reform Act) tied receipt of benefits to work, established time limits for federally funded benefits, and created incentives for states to reduce their caseloads. It also greatly reduced or eliminated federal eligibility for legal immigrants during their first five years of U.S. residence.

On September 30, 2002, PRWORA expired. With the heavy load of congressional business in the fall of 2002, Congress did not meet the deadline for making the decisions necessary to reauthorize the law. At this writing, Congress has extended the law several times at current funding levels. Thus, the debates about revising the provisions of the law will also be extended until Congress can agree on a bill.

One of the most contentious debates leading up to the reauthorization of PRWORA regards access to public assistance benefits for noncitizens. The law as originally passed denied federal welfare benefits to most legal immigrants during their first five years of U.S. residence and placed other restrictions on legal immigrants’ eligibility for benefits. These restrictions included rendering legal immigrants already in the United States (“preenactment” immigrants) and recipients of benefits immediately ineligible for most federally funded programs. In addition, immigrants entering the United States to reside after the date of the passage of PRWORA (“postenactment” immigrants) are ineligible for federally funded benefits during their first five years of residence. It is entirely up to state and local governments to decide whether they will use their own funding to cover immigrants who are ineligible for federal programs. In the years since the implementation of the law, Congress has made several important federal restorations for noncitizens in the Food Stamp and Supplemental Security Income Programs but noncitizen eligibility rules for TANF and Medicaid remain as they were legislated by PRWORA. However, because the law has expired and must be reauthorized, the possibility for future changes in the eligibility of noncitizens is in the hands of federal policymakers. As they continue to hash over issues of welfare eligibility, Congress will debate how to balance fairness with necessary budget considerations. This chapter details the changes in immigrant eligibility for welfare benefits, situates the changes in a broad political and social context, and addresses future policy concerns.

Welfare Reform and Immigrants: A Policy Review in Kretsedemans, Philip and Ana Aparicio (eds), Immigrants, Welfare Reform, and the Poverty of Policy. (May) 2004. Westport CT: Praeger Publishers.