Working Paper No. 13

The Use of Public Assistance Benefits by Citizens and Non-citizen Immigrants in the United States

By Leighton Ku and Brian Bruen
February 19, 2013

Claims are sometimes made that immigrants use public benefits, such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, more often than those who are born in the United States. This report provides analyses, using the most recent data from the Census Bureau, that counter these claims. In reality, low-income non-citizen immigrants, including adults and children, are generally less likely to receive public benefits than those who are native-born. Moreover, when non-citizen immigrants receive benefits, the value of benefits they receive is usually lower than the value of benefits received by those born in the United States. The combination of lower average utilization and smaller average benefits indicates that the overall cost of public benefits is substantially less for low-income non-citizen immigrants than for comparable native-born adults and children. The report also explains that the lower use of public benefits by non-citizen immigrants is not surprising, since federal rules restrict immigrants’ eligibility for these public benefit programs.

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Leighton Ku, PhD, MPH, is a Professor of Health Policy and Director of the Center for Health Policy Research at George Washington University. Brian Bruen, MS, is a Lead Research Scientist and Lecturer in the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University. Both have conducted research and policy analyses about the use of medical and other public benefits for needy Americans, including immigrants, for many years. Research articles by Ku and/or Bruen have been published in noted journals such as Health Affairs, New England Journal of Medicine, and American Journal of Public Health.