Explaining Mexican-immigrant welfare behaviors: The importance of employment-related cultural repertoires

Jennifer Van Hook, Frank D. Bean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Social scientists generally seek to explain welfare-related behaviors in terms of economic, social structural, or culture of poverty theories. Such explanations, however, do not account for nativity differences in public assistance receipt among immigrants of Mexican origin. This article draws on the sociology of migration and culture literatures to develop a materialist-based cultural repertoire account and attendant hypotheses to explain the welfare behaviors of Mexican immigrants. We argue that such immigrants arrive and work in the United States under circumstances that foster employment-based cultural repertoires that, compared with natives and other immigrant groups, encourage less welfare participation (in part because such repertoires lead to faster welfare exits) and more post-welfare employment. This is particularly true in states with relatively more generous welfare welfare policies. Using individual-level data predating the Welfare Reform Act, from multiple panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) merged with state-level information on welfare benefit levels, we examine immigrant-group differences in welfare receipt, retention, and transition to employment across locales with varying levels of welfare benefits. Findings are largely consistent with our cultural repertoire account: Mexican immigrants tend to utilize welfare not primarily to avoid work, cope with disadvantage, or perpetuate a culture of dependency, but rather to minimize the effects of employment discontinuities. Such findings carry important theoretical and policy implications-implications we outline in our conclusion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-444
Number of pages22
JournalAmerican sociological review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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