July 10, 1998

New Federal Food Stamp Restoration for Legal Immigrants:
Implications and Implementation Issues

by Kelly Carmody and Stacy Dean

I. Overview

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On June 23, 1998, the President signed legislation — Public Law 105-185 — that restores federal food stamp eligibility for a substantial number of legal immigrants who had lost eligibility under the 1996 welfare law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996). As a result of enactment of this legislation, 250,000 legal immigrants — including most children and disabled immigrants and many elderly immigrants — will be able to begin receiving federal food stamp benefits on November 1, 1998.

The food stamp restoration in the new law is limited — the law restores federal food stamp eligibility to slightly fewer than one of every three legal immigrants who lost eligibility due to the welfare law. Most legal immigrant adults who are neither elderly nor disabled — including parents living with citizen or immigrant children — remain ineligible. Most immigrants who arrive in the United States after the date the welfare law was signed — August 22, 1996 — also continue to be ineligible.

This paper discusses issues relating to this partial federal food stamp restoration. The paper is intended as a guide for state administrators, non-profit organizations, religious institutions, and others interested in the restoration. It contains issues important both to states that operate state food assistance programs for immigrants and states that do not.

States that run state food assistance programs have important decisions to make about what they will do with state resources no longer needed to pay for food assistance for immigrants who become eligible for federal food stamps. And, how states implement the restoration in coming months will affect the degree to which immigrants whose eligibility for federal benefits has been restored actually begin receiving federal food stamp benefits on November 1.


Issues for States with State-funded Food Assistance Programs

The partial federal restoration creates risks as well as opportunities. The risks include the possibility that some states may eliminate or reduce their state-funded food assistance programs. In virtually all states that currently run state programs, there are some immigrants receiving state-funded food assistance who are not covered by the federal restoration. If these states end their state-funded programs, these individuals will have their food assistance cut off and be worse off than they are today.

For example, the restoration of federal food stamp eligibility for elderly immigrants is limited to immigrants who resided legally in the United States on August 22, 1996 and were 65 years of age on that date. When the restoration takes effect on November 1, 1998, its coverage of elderly immigrants thus will be limited to those who are at least 67 years of age. Virtually all state food assistance programs, by contrast, cover immigrants who are 60 and older or 65 and older.

More generally, if states simply replace state funds for food assistance for immigrants with federal funds, that will appreciably lessen the impact of the federal restoration and substantially reduce the degree to which the federal restoration eases hunger and hardship in immigrant communities. To the degree that this occurs, many immigrants now covered by state food assistance programs will simply be covered by the federal food stamp program instead. If states do not re-program the freed-up state funds to cover legal immigrants who remain ineligible for federal food stamps, the total number of immigrants eligible for food stamps (counting all those covered with either federal or state funds) will increase only modestly.

If there are risks, however, there also are important opportunities, particularly in states that have state-funded food assistance programs for legal immigrants. These states can reinvest the state funds freed up by the federal restoration to extend food stamp coverage to legal immigrants not covered by the federal restoration. For example, a state could use freed-up funds to expand coverage in its state food assistance program to include legal immigrant parents with children in their homes. States that already cover nearly all legal immigrants in their state-funded programs could reinvest the freed-up state funds to bolster the weakened safety net for poor legal immigrants in other ways. Such a state might use freed-up funds to provide cash or medical assistance to certain categories of legal immigrants ineligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), TANF-funded assistance, or Medicaid.

Several recent studies demonstrate the importance of extending food stamp coverage to groups of legal immigrants not covered by the federal restoration. These studies have found the prevalence of hunger among immigrant households in three states with a state-funded program similar to the federal restoration (i.e., a state program that covers only selected categories of legal immigrants such as children and the elderly and disabled) to be seven to ten times greater than the prevalence of hunger in the general population. The findings of these studies suggest that extending food stamps to more legal immigrants than just children and elderly and disabled people is important if greater progress is to be made in alleviating hunger in immigrant communities. The studies strongly suggest, for example, that progress in alleviating hunger among legal immigrant children (as well as citizen children living with legal immigrant parents) is likely to be limited unless food assistance benefits also are restored for parents; continuing to deny food assistance to the parents lessens the total resources available to the family to purchase food. Until such time as there is a fuller federal restoration, states will continue to have a very important role to play in filling gaps in coverage.


Implementation and Outreach Issues for All States

This paper also analyzes and provides recommendations on several issues related to how states implement the federal benefit restoration. The food stamp program has not experienced an expansion in eligibility to this large a large class of individuals in twenty years. State food stamp agencies will need to take various steps in coming months if as many eligible immigrants as possible are to begin receiving federal benefits on November 1.

It will be important for state agencies and state and local non-profit organizations and service providers to work together to inform as many potentially eligible immigrants as possible about the federal restoration and the steps these immigrants need to take to secure the federal food stamps to which they will be entitled. States have important administrative mechanisms available that should enable them to identify and contact many of the individuals who will be eligible and, in some cases, to enroll these individuals without the individuals having to submit a new application. In addition to these administrative mechanisms, traditional outreach efforts will be necessary. State agencies will need to work on such efforts with non-profit service providers and other groups that have contact with legal immigrants.

Finally, a number of states are concerned about the financial effects of another provision of the new legislation — a change in procedures regarding federal reimbursement for state food stamp administrative costs. (This is the mechanism that Congress used to pay for the partial restoration of food stamps for legal immigrants as well as for expansions in several agricultural programs.) An appendix to this paper explains how the new administrative cost reimbursement procedure will work and discusses various concerns some states may have with it. This is an important issue for those working on immigrant food stamp issues to understand, since some states may believe this change in reimbursement procedures has implications for state financing of state-funded food assistance programs for immigrants.

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