According to the Census Bureau’s alternative poverty measure, which many argue is more accurate, 2.2 million more immigrants are poor than the official measure shows. By counting government assistance and subtracting necessary expenses, the Supplemental Poverty Measure reveals that many immigrants don’t benefit from safety net programs, although they still pay taxes and work-related expenses.
Last week, the Census Bureau published the 2014 official poverty rates. For the first time, they also published the Supplemental Poverty Measure’s rates at the same time. The supplemental measure extends the official poverty measure by counting many of the government benefits that low-income families receive, including food stamps, nutrition assistance for women and children, school lunches, housing subsidies, and home energy assistance. In addition, the supplemental measure subtracts necessary expenses, such as income taxes, Social Security payroll taxes, child support, child care expenses, work-related expenses, and out-of-pocket medical expenses.
For the United States as a whole, the Supplemental Poverty Measure does not change the picture of well-being by much, increasing poverty from the official rate of 14.9 percent to 15.3 percent. Under the supplemental measure, the poverty rate for blacks is 2 percentage points lower than the official rate.
But the way me measure poverty makes a big difference for immigrants. The poverty rate of foreign-born people goes up from 18.5 percent in the official measure to 23.7 percent in the supplemental measure—a difference of 2.2 million immigrants. This 5.2 percentage-point increase is the largest difference among any group evaluated under the supplemental poverty measure.
Why is poverty higher with the supplemental measure?
Many immigrants are not eligible for the noncash assistance included in the supplemental poverty measure, and not just undocumented immigrants. Legally residing immigrants who have lived here for less than five years cannot get government benefits. In economic adversity, they are not supposed to turn to the safety net, but rather to their sponsors who sign an affidavit of support for their immigration applications.
In some immigrant families, the parents are not eligible for benefits, but their US-born children are—meaning that those families get less in benefits than otherwise comparable families headed by native-born parents. Some immigrants do not turn to the safety net because they are afraid of being detected as unauthorized or think that receiving benefits could jeopardize their citizenship application.
Many of these immigrants have jobs, so they pay taxes and incur employment expenses, which are counted in the supplemental measure. But work isn’t always enough. While immigrants as a whole—and Latino immigrants in particular—have higher employment rates than natives, they are more likely to experience food insecurity.
Policy levers to reduce immigrant poverty
In the existing policy landscape, the poverty of immigrant families is difficult to tackle. Federal policy levers that reduce poverty among other groups are out of reach for many immigrants. Not that this cannot be changed. The treatment of immigrants in the safety net is spelled out in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and could be changed by an act of Congress.
Some states are pitching in to cover immigrants who are not qualified for benefits. But up to now, only five states provide state-funded nutritional assistance to legally residing immigrants not qualified under PRWORA.
The high supplemental poverty rate for immigrants reminds us that the government safety net is a mirage for a good number of new Americans.