The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) released a new report this morning on immigrant welfare use. CIS found that immigrants use far more welfare than natives do. CIS’ methodology, parts of which are suspect, is what produced this result – as we’ve pointed out to CIS multiple times. They also omitted a lot of information that would make for a better comparison between immigrants and natives. Simply put, the CIS study does not compare apples to apples but rather apples to elephants.
The first issue is that CIS counts the welfare use of households, which includes many native-born American citizens, rather than individuals. There might be some good reasons to do this but the immigrant-headed household variable CIS uses is ambiguous, poorly defined, and less used in modern research for those reasons. To CIS’ credit they try to separate out households with children but didn’t separate out American-born spouses. There is debate largely over whether to count the American born children of immigrants as a welfare cost of immigration. If we should count them, shouldn’t we also count the welfare use of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren of immigrants? Such a way of counting would obviously produce a negative result but it would also not be informative.
Another problem with counting households rather than individuals is that immigrants and natives have different sized households. According to the American Community Survey, immigrant households have on average 3.37 people in them compared to 2.5 people in native-born households. All else remaining equal, we should expect higher welfare use in immigrant households just because they’re larger. CIS should have corrected for household size by focusing on individual welfare use – which is included in the SIPP.