Immigrants Seek Work, not Welfare

August 9, 2010

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Amid the escalating debate over birthright citizenship, a new report by Cato Institute Adjunct Scholar Stuart Anderson shows that both legal and illegal immigrants have higher workforce participation rates and lower welfare claims than native-born citizens:

Some oppose immigration because they believe immigrant use of welfare demonstrates immigrants do not assimilate in America. Others argue the immigrant work ethic remains strong and that immigrants do not come here to get on the dole. Examining data and eligibility rules provides an answer as to who is right on this issue.

Welfare and immigration is a combustible topic. In many ways, the issue is less fiscal than emotional. Americans treat the concept of newcomers arriving in America and immediately receiving government handouts as akin to an in-law moving into their basement and refusing to look for a job. It’s not so much the cost as the principle of the thing. The good news is there is little evidence that immigrants come to America to go on welfare, rather than to work, flee persecution or join family members in the United States.

To evaluate whether immigrants come here to be on the dole one has to examine several aspects of the issue. First, it is necessary to look at the eligibility rules for immigrants, which are complicated and were overhauled in 1996. Second, one should evaluate their level of workforce participation, since if immigrants are working, then they are not bursting the welfare rolls. And third, we should compare native and immigrant use of welfare programs. Similar benefit use rates would indicate immigrants are not becoming fiscal burdens on other residents of the country.

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