Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Children of Immigrant Parents Face Poverty Despite Hard Work; Increasingly Excluded from Federal Programs to Meet Basic Needs
New Reports Detail High Levels of Both Employment and Poverty

October 31, 2005—New York , NY—While nearly 4 million immigrant families in the United States are low income, virtually all of them have working parents. Among children with foreign-born parents, 97 percent have a parent who works and 72 percent have a parent who works full-time, year round. However, according to two new reports issued by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), these children have less access to government supports that can help low-income families bridge the gap between earnings and basic family needs. This reality flies in the face of arguments that immigrant families come to the United States to receive generous social welfare benefits.

“Adults emigrate to the United States to participate in the American dream,” said Dr. Jane Knitzer, Executive Director of NCCP, “but the fact is that immigrant families are working hard and their children – overwhelmingly U.S. citizens – are getting less.”

The use of work supports among recent immigrants has declined as a result of federal policies such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which bars most legal immigrants from receiving federal supports during their first five years in the United States. Moreover, noncitizens are not the only ones who have been affected—participation rates also have declined among U.S. citizen children in immigrant families.

The widespread fear of government in immigrant communities prevents many eligible immigrants from seeking assistance. “Many immigrants fear that any contact with government could jeopardize their immigrant status and lead to the deportation of undocumented family members,” explained Kinsey Alden Dinan, author of the reports.

A disproportionate number of immigrants work in low-wage jobs and in labor, service, or trade occupations that do not offer employer benefits. This occupational pattern, coupled with the federal restrictions on immigrant access to public benefits, such as health insurance, largely explains why children in low-income immigrant families are significantly more likely than children of low-income, native-born parents to be faced with hardships.

While federal policies have restricted access to work supports for immigrant families, some state governments have stepped in to provide replacement supports. Three states—California, Maine, and Nebraska—have funded replacement programs for food stamps, cash assistance, SSI, and public health insurance for children and parents. About half of the states, however, offer no replacement programs for immigrant families.

For interviews with policy experts from NCCP, please call Michael Morey at 914-833-7093. For fact sheets with relevant data and full text of the policy briefs click here .