Urban Wire With Public Charge Rule Looming, One in Seven Adults in Immigrant Families Reported Avoiding Public Benefit Programs in 2018
Hamutal Bernstein, Dulce Gonzalez, Michael Karpman, Stephen Zuckerman
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In October 2018, the Trump administration proposed an expansion of the “public charge” rule, signaling a significant departure from current immigration policy. The proposed rule would consider an immigrant’s past use of noncash public benefit programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid, as a negative factor in applications for green cards (i.e., permanent residency) or temporary visas. The rule would also weigh low income, poor health status, and other characteristics as negative factors.

Even before the proposed rule was published, rumors about it were circulating in early 2018. Human services providers reported widespread “chilling effects” on immigrant families’ participation in safety net programs for fear of potential immigration consequences. Stories of families avoiding programs continue even though the administration has not finalized or implemented the rule. Yet these reports have been largely anecdotal.

Now, for the first time, we have systemic evidence of the extent of chilling on a national scale through a unique data source, the December 2018 round of the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey. This survey asked 1,950 adults who are foreign-born or living with foreign-born family members whether they or a family member had avoided participating in public benefit programs in the past year because of concerns about future green card status.

As we explore in our new brief, chilling effects are widespread and have spilled over to families not directly affected by the rule, including permanent residents and US citizens (likely including many US citizen children). Here is what we found:

  • About one in seven (13.7 percent) adults in immigrant families reported that they or a family member did not participate in—meaning they did not apply for or dropped out of—a noncash benefit program in 2018 out of fear of risking future green card status. Among adults in low-income families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, this rate was one in five (20.7 percent).


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  • Although the proposed rule does not directly affect permanent residents or US citizens, 14.7 percent of adults in families in which all noncitizens are permanent residents reported chilling effects. And in families in which all foreign-born members are citizens, 1 in 10 adults (9.3 percent) reported these effects.

  • Adults in immigrant families living with children younger than 19 were more likely to report avoiding benefit programs (17.4 percent) than adults without children in the household (8.9 percent).

  • Hispanic adults in immigrant families were more than twice as likely to report chilling effects in their families (20.6 percent) compared with non-Hispanic white (8.5 percent) and non-Hispanic nonwhite (6.0 percent) adults in immigrant families.

  • Among adults reporting chilling effects, 46.0 percent reported that they or someone in their family did not participate in SNAP; 42.0 percent did not participate in Medicaid/CHIP; and 33.4 percent did not participate in housing subsidies. 

  • Most adults in immigrant families reported awareness of the proposed rule (62.9 percent). Among adults who had heard “a lot” about the proposed rule, nearly one-third (31.1 percent) reported chilling effects in their families.

This evidence reveals that although it has not been finalized, the proposed expansion of public charge has already led families to stop participating in programs that help them meet their basic needs. We anticipate chilling effects will be exacerbated once the US Department of Homeland Security finalizes the rule.

These survey results offer the first systematic insights on the scope of the public charge rule’s chilling effects on a national scale. In a separate brief, we will present findings from interviews with adults in some of these families to show how families are making their decisions about whether to participate in or avoid public benefit programs. We hope that these close-to-real-time data can inform efforts by providers, advocates, policymakers, and other stakeholders to educate and protect immigrant families from harm.


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Research Areas Immigration
Tags Welfare and safety net programs Immigrant access to the safety net From Safety Net to Solid Ground Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
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