The 1996 Welfare Reform Act (PRWORA) made it more difficult for non-citizens to access means-tested welfare benefits. However, that law also allowed states to use their own funds to extend means-tested welfare benefits to non-citizens and some took advantage of this. After 1996, the only sure-fire way for a non-citizen to get welfare benefits was to naturalize and become a citizen.
Twelve states did not change non-citizen eligibility for four large welfare programs (TANF, SNAP Medicaid, and SSI) in response to PRWORA while the other 39 states and the District of Columbia became more restrictive. If non-citizens responded to welfare reform by naturalizing in order to gain access to benefits then there would be a larger increase in naturalizations in states with more restrictive post-PRWORA policies. The evidence bears this out for immigrants based on country of origin. The state by state evidence is more mixed.
I then compared the increased percent in the number of naturalizations per state from the 1993-1995 period (first period) to the 1997-1999 period (second period). Unfortunately, the 1996 data is unusable because some of it is unavailable and computer problems delayed naturalizations for that year, causing a 100 percent drop off in some states that had nothing to do with welfare reform.
The combined number of naturalizations in the twelve states with unchanged rules for non-citizen eligibility increased by 54.5 percent from the first to the second period. Naturalizations especially increased in California but there were other factors there contributing to the surge. Excluding California, naturalizations only increased by 13.6 percent in the remaining 11 states with unchanged non-citizen welfare eligibility rules. The total number of naturalizations increased by 32 percent between the two periods in the 39 states that adopted more restrictive welfare eligibility laws.
About 44 percent of all nationwide naturalizations occurred in the states with unchanged welfare rules in the first period and 48 percent in the second period. The percentage of all nationwide naturalizations in states with rules that got more restrictive dropped from 55.6 to 51.7 percent from the first to the second period. The national share of naturalizations increased the most in states that did not adopt more restrictive welfare rules while the proportion of all naturalizations in states with more restrictive rules actually dropped between the periods, the opposite of what we’d expect if immigrants naturalized to get around welfare reform.
Furthermore, the share of the population that was naturalized in the 12 unchanged states went from 3 percent to 3.7 percent from 1994 to 1999 (the 1993 data was absent from CPS). For the states that restricted non-citizen welfare access, the percentage of the population that was naturalized climbed from 1.8 percent to 2.3 percent. The change was larger, proportionally, in the restricted states – but not by much. Numerous other potential explanatory variables are not included here so this is not the whole story.
Welfare reform likely prompted a rise in naturalizations but the effect is probably small compared to other factors.