Brief Immigrant Families in California Faced Barriers Accessing Safety Net Programs in 2021, but Community Organizations Helped Many Enroll
Dulce Gonzalez, Michael Karpman, Clara Alvarez Caraveo
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Immigrant families were especially hard hit by the pandemic but also faced unique barriers to accessing safety net programs, including eligibility restrictions, language barriers, and a fear of immigration consequences. But a shift is underway in states such as California, where policymakers have been taking meaningful steps toward a more inclusive safety net for immigrants and their families. As the state closes gaps in eligibility based on immigration status for some programs, understanding the difficulties navigating safety net programs that eligible immigrant families in California share with other families, as well as their unique barriers, can inform policies that help them obtain needed assistance.

Drawing on data from the December 2021 round of the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, we assessed family participation in and experiences with seven public benefit programs among adults in California immigrant families in 2021. The following findings from this study shed light on key access challenges and potential strategies for reducing enrollment barriers for eligible families:

  • Safety net programs help many families in California meet basic needs, including families with immigrants.
  • Though most adults in immigrant families reported positive experiences applying for or participating in safety net programs, some faced difficulties accessing benefits and interacting with program staff. Adults in immigrant and US-born families reported these challenges at similar rates.
  • Community organizations played a key role in connecting California immigrant families to the safety net.
  • Many adults in immigrant families avoided applying for noncash benefit programs because of green card and other immigration concerns in 2021.

Renewed efforts at the federal and state levels to review and ameliorate programmatic barriers and close information gaps provide an opportunity to make the safety net more inclusive and effective for all state residents, including income-eligible immigrants. Community organizations can also serve as strong intermediaries to guide families through complex program enrollment processes and ensure they get assistance with health, nutrition, housing, and other basic needs.

Research Areas Families Health and health care Immigration Social safety net
Tags Families with low incomes Family and household data From Safety Net to Solid Ground Health insurance Immigrant access to the safety net Immigrant children, families, and communities Immigrant-serving organizations Inclusive recovery State health care reform State programs, budgets State Children's Health Insurance Program Supplemental nutrition - Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Unemployment and unemployment insurance
Policy Centers Health Policy Center
Research Methods Data analysis Quantitative data analysis
States California