Immigrant welfare receipt: Implications for immigrant settlement and integration

Jennifer Van Hook, Frank D. Bean

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

6 Scopus citations


The reception that newcomers face in host societies shapes the nature and degree of immigrant incorporation (Bloemraad 2006; Portes and Rumbaut 2001). Recent research, for example, has found that more favorable and welcoming social contexts increase the probability of naturalization (Van Hook, Brown, and Bean 2006). Such findings imply that providing assistance to immigrants, in whatever form, might foster immigrant economic integration, especially among the disproportionately large number of immigrants with scant education who have come to the United States over the past three decades, primarily to work. Of course, the United States has not traditionally provided settlement assistance to immigrants, except refugees. But this reasoning and these findings suggest that even forms of backdoor help, such as cash and noncash assistance, may provide bridge support to immigrants that facilitates their transition from arrival to subsequent labor market attachment, from episodes of joblessness to periods of gainful employment. However, many observers and policy analysts clearly think otherwise, tending to view immigrant welfare receipt in negative rather than positive terms. They assume it reflects not only lack of initiative and the development of dependency, but also the failure of the U.S. immigrant admission system to prevent public charges from entering the country (Borjas 2001; Brimelow 1995). Thus the social science literature contains two views about the consequences of receiving welfare assistance, and in particular about its implications for immigrants' economic incorporation. On the one hand, some say it impedes immigrant economic incorporation and leads to the types of outcomes Gary Burtless noted in 1990. This line of argument is a variation on the theme that receiving support from the government discourages hard work and personal responsibility (Murray 1984). These observers see relatively higher levels of welfare receipt among recently arrived immigrants as evidence that newcomers disposed to welfare use are increasingly drawn to the United States (Borjas 1990). They also see apparently rising levels of welfare use with time in the United States as proof that generous public assistance programs create incentives that discourage work and promote dependency (Borjas and Hilton 1996). Such arguments were used to justify the sweeping 1996 changes in welfare policy that limited immigrants' eligibility for public assistance (Edwards 2001). On the other hand, sociological theories suggest that successful immigrant integration most likely occurs in welcoming and supportive environments (Van Hook, Brown, and Bean 2006). Recent accounts of the poor further suggest that an infusion of resources- for investments such as cars, work clothing, job training, and rental deposits-may help the economically disadvantaged escape poverty and welfare (Ehrenreich 2001). Ethnographic research notes that public assistance often makes it possible for immigrant families to share resources, thus advancing long-term family-level goals of upward mobility through the schooling and occupational success of the next generation (Menjivar 1997; Zhou and Bankston 1998). Research further implies that persistent welfare recipiency among immigrants the longer they are in the United States-to the extent it occurs-may result in part from the lack of adequate settlement assistance (Bean, Stevens, and Van Hook 2003). Thus sociological perspectives would predict that high welfare benefit levels will hasten socioeconomic incorpora tion, perhaps eventually leading to lower levels of welfare use over time and across generations. Previous research has focused extensively on immigrant-native differentials in welfare recipiency and to a lesser extent on immigrants' trajectories in welfare recipiency with time in the United States. Most of this research implicitly interprets immigrant welfare recipiency generally as an indicator of economic marginality and specifically as a portent of downward economic assimilation into a permanent poverty class. To place these ideas within the larger literature on welfare and immigrant assimilation, we first describe the dominant theoretical perspectives scholars have used to interpret or understand welfare recipiency in general and among immigrants in particular. We follow this discussion by outlining a series of research findings that, together, suggest an alternative interpretation of immigrant welfare recipiency in which public assistance functions as settlement assistance for the United States' newest arrivals. Some of the evidence comes from our own research and that of other researchers over the past decade or so. More comes from new findings based on the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation presented here for the first time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationImmigrants and Welfare
Subtitle of host publicationThe Impact of Welfare Reform on America's Newcomers
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9780871544674
StatePublished - Dec 1 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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