Brief Immigrant Families Faced Multiple Barriers to Safety Net Programs in 2021
Hamutal Bernstein, Dulce Gonzalez, Paola Echave, Diana Guelespe
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We assess the hardships and barriers to safety net programs immigrant families face using data from the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted in December 2021. The findings highlight the unmet needs of immigrant families and their ongoing exclusion from basic safety net supports. They face barriers encountered by all program applicants, but these are further complicated by policy and practice impacting immigrant communities specifically, such as the threat of immigration enforcement and language access gaps. Although reversal of Trump-era changes to public charge regulations is a step forward, the continuation of chilling effects is a major concern.

Our survey results are as follows:

  • Many adults in immigrant families reported material hardships in 2021. They were more likely than adults in all-US-born families to report food insecurity (36.4 versus 31.4 percent), problems paying utility bills (21.2 versus 16.2 percent), and problems paying the rent or mortgage (20.3 versus 13.8 percent).
  • Many adults in immigrant families reported not applying to safety net programs because of immigration-related concerns. Over one in five (20.6 percent) reported avoiding one or more noncash safety net programs in 2021 because of worries about being disqualified from obtaining a green card; 16.3 percent because of other worries about immigration status or enforcement; 13.8 percent because they were unsure about eligibility because of their or a family member’s immigration status; and 11.3 percent because they were asked to provide their Social Security number or other proof of citizenship or immigration status when they applied for a family member.
  • About half of adults in immigrant families who did apply for or participate in one or more cash or noncash safety net programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Supplemental Security Income in 2021, reported difficulties with enrollment in one or more programs, a higher share than in all-US-born families (50.8 versus 43.4 percent). Specifically, 34.9 percent had trouble figuring out if they or their family members were eligible, 26.1 percent had trouble providing required documentation or completing required paperwork, and 34.9 percent did not get benefits as soon as they needed them.
  • Adults in immigrant families who applied for safety net programs were more likely than adults in all-US-born families to report that staff for one or more programs never or only sometimes treated them with courtesy and respect (37.9 versus 29.2 percent) and to report feeling they received unfair judgment or treatment because of their racial or ethnic background (16.9 versus 10.5 percent). In addition, 37.8 percent of adults in immigrant families reported that staff never or only sometimes gave them the information or help they needed, and 24.0 percent reported they never or only sometimes could find program information in their preferred language.
  • Just over one in five adults in immigrant families who applied for or participated in safety net programs (21.0 percent) reported that someone from a community organization helped them apply, compared with 11.0 percent of adults in all-US-born families.
Research Areas Immigration Social safety net
Tags Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy Families with low incomes Immigrant access to the safety net Immigrant communities and racial equity Immigrant communities demographics and trends Immigrant-serving organizations From Safety Net to Solid Ground Welfare and safety net programs
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center Health Policy Center
Research Methods Data analysis Data collection