March  18, 2003

by Shawn Fremstad

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The 1996 federal welfare law created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and imposed far-reaching restrictions on legal immigrants’ eligibility for a range of public benefits. When considering the impact of the 1996 law on immigrant families, researchers and others have focused primarily on the immigrant eligibility restrictions, especially the restrictions on Medicaid and food stamps. Less attention has been paid to the law’s restrictions on legal immigrant eligibility for TANF and the overall implications for immigrants of the shift from AFDC to TANF, including whether welfare-to-work policies have affected immigrants — and a related group, persons with limited proficiency in English — differently than U.S.-born persons.

This paper reviews available research on immigrants, limited-English-proficient persons, and the TANF program. It begins by describing the restrictions on immigrant eligibility for TANF and summarizing TANF participation trends for immigrants. The paper then reviews findings from research on how immigrants who remain eligible for TANF have fared in what is now a work-focused, time-limited welfare program. Many immigrants who remain on the welfare rolls have significant barriers to employment, including limited proficiency in English and low skill levels, and appear to have lower employment and earnings levels than U.S.-born persons. While there is evidence that some welfare-to-work programs can increase immigrants’ employment and earnings levels, these programs do not necessarily close the employment and earnings gaps that exist between U.S.-born persons and immigrants. The final section discusses some of the policy implications of these findings.

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