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Democracy

A new study completely debunks one of the worst stereotypes about immigrants

They use fewer public benefits than native-born citizens.

u.s. immigration, welfare use, immigrants

Naturalization Ceremony at Harriet Tubman National Historical Park on August 8, 2019.

One of the most pernicious stereotypes about immigrants in the United States is that they take more from the country than they give back because they are more likely to use welfare benefits than native-born citizens. These stereotypes lead to public policies that reduce the number of immigrants coming into the country and make it harder for those who are here to get green cards.

“Immigrants are more likely to be less educated and to work in low-skilled occupations than native-born Americans. As a result, Americans wrongly think that immigrants are big consumers of welfare,” Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst currently working at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity of the Cato Institute, told Upworthy.

“Immigrants are also more likely to be ethnic and racial minorities than native-born Americans, which might feed the stereotype that they are more likely to consume welfare,” Nowrasteh added.

These stereotypes create a hostile environment for immigrants that makes it harder for them to succeed and assimilate. It also leads to statutes that unfairly target them.


In 2019, the Trump administration implemented a “public charge rule” to make it harder for immigrants to become U.S. citizens. The new rule said the government could deny green cards to anyone who used anti-poverty programs they legally qualified for such as food stamps, Medicaid, prescription-drug subsidies and housing vouchers.

“Those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a press release. The rule was enacted to “promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

The rule was overturned in 2021.

A recent study published by the Cato Institute refutes these anti-immigrant stereotypes by proving that they consume fewer welfare entitlement benefits than native-born U.S. citizens on a per-capita basis.

The study, “Immigrant and Native Consumption of Means-Tested Welfare and Entitlement Benefits in 2019” by Nowrasteh and Michael Howard, found that in 2019, immigrants—both legal and undocumented—consumed 28% less welfare and entitlement benefits than native-born Americans on a per capita basis. These new figures widened the 7% gap between immigrants and native-born Americans that was found in 2016.

The study reviewed means-tested programs including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). It also considered Social Security and Medicare.

“Working-age and elderly immigrants tend to consume more Medicaid benefits than native-born Americans in the same age groups, but for all other large programs and many minor ones, natives are more expensive than immigrants on a per capita basis,” the report reads. “This exception is possibly due to a substitution effect: fewer immigrants qualify for the more expensive entitlement programs such as Medicare and more have legal access to Medicaid.”

However, Nowrasteh told Upworthy that if Medicare and Social Security were removed from the study, native-born Americans would still consume 23% more welfare than immigrants. He added that “excluding the entitlement programs narrows the gap but does not close it.”

Studies also show that in the long term, immigrants contribute more to the government's revenue than they receive in social spending. A study published by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the value of each immigrant to the U.S. is $259,000.

“If immigrants are assigned the marginal cost of public goods, then the long-run fiscal impact is positive and the short-run effect is negative but very small (less negative than that of natives),” a Federal Reserve summary said.

To put it simply, even if an immigrant uses some welfare benefits after first arriving in the U.S., their net benefit over a lifetime to the system is positive.

But immigrants shouldn’t just be welcomed in America because it helps the bottom line. America should continue its humane duty to be a home for anyone who wishes to contribute to this land of opportunity and live to their full potential.

“Workers, family members, and refugees should be allowed to come to the United States legally in far greater numbers than they do today. The median immigrant worker can expect a 4-fold increase in real income by coming to the United States, even accounting for differences in the cost of living,” Nowrasteh told Upworthy.

The Trump administration's hardline immigration policies along with the pandemic created a historic drop in immigrants coming to the United States between 2016 and 2021. But with the new administration, there is a chance for some positive change, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

“The Biden administration has mostly reopened legal immigration to the point where it was prior to the pandemic—but that’s about it for the legal immigration system,” Nowrasteh said. “Immigration policy just isn’t a priority for the Biden administration. Immigration enforcement is a mess, which is better than the alternative. So far, the Biden administration has vastly underperformed expectations.”

The United States is suffering from a labor shortage, partly due to a drastic reduction in the inflow of migrants looking for jobs. Allowing more immigrants into the country and expediting the citizenship process would give a much-needed post-COVID jolt to the economy.

Further, the United States has an aging population and a low birth rate, so to keep the country thriving it needs an influx of young immigrants. The financial health of the country’s Social Security and Medicare programs will be severely strained without an increased number of young workers paying taxes to support the elderly.

Immigrants provide tremendous value to America’s culture and productivity and are a vital part of supporting the social programs that guarantee a high quality of life for Americans of all ages. By pushing back against the dated and incorrect stereotype that immigrants are a drain on the system we can help promote policies and a culture that fulfills America’s promise and welcome them with open arms.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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