Child poverty in the U.S. has been on the decline. In 2016, the percentage of children living in poverty reached a record low of 15.2 percent, according to data from the Census Bureau. And since the late 1960s, the child poverty rate has been reduced by nearly half. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities largely attributes this progress to the creation and expansion of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also commonly known as food stamps).
However, as my colleagues and I at Columbia University documented in a new report, a troubling development might reverse this downward trend. A Department of Homeland Security proposal, if implemented, could put at least 670,000 more children ― 560,000 of whom are U.S. citizens ― at risk of moving into poverty, by our calculations.
Currently, nearly 90 percent of children with immigrant parents are U.S.-born and therefore eligible for benefits like SNAP. By our estimates, SNAP participation for children of immigrants is comparable to participation for children of native-born parents; about one in three children receive SNAP benefits at some point within a given year.
Not only would the DHS proposal increase the number of children living in poverty, but evidence suggests it’s already scaring away eligible immigrants from utilizing much-needed benefits for their families.
The proposal addresses what is called “public charge.” It’s a term used by U.S. immigration officials for more than 100 years that refers to a person who relies on, or is likely to rely on, public cash assistance or government support, including programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Foreign-born individuals who are deemed by immigration officials to be a “public charge” can be denied entry into the U.S.
“Without a course correction, the U.S. will soon see a measurable increase in the number of children living in poverty.”
For now, non-cash benefits, including nutrition programs like SNAP, cannot be used when determining whether someone is a public charge. The existing definition only includes participation in cash assistance programs. Consider a U.S. household with citizen children, a mother who has legal permanent residence, and a father with a temporary work visa. Under current policy, immigration officers cannot use the household’s participation in non-cash benefit programs (like SNAP) as a reason for denying the father legal permanent residence. The father would be ineligible for SNAP based on his status; the mother and her children would be eligible.
But the Trump administration wants to change all that; the proposed DHS regulation would allow officials to consider a household’s participation in both cash and non-cash benefits when making decisions about public charge status. Receiving non-cash public benefits like food assistance could become a liability during the vetting process for immigrants working to obtain legal permanent residence.
Undocumented parents are already increasingly fearful that any interaction with the government will lead to arrest and deportation. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data, immigrant arrest rates have risen by 41 percent since 2016, with a 171 percent increase in the number of non-criminal arrests.
This, coupled with word of proposed changes to the public charge rule, is leading immigrant households to abandon both SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a program that provides food and nutrition education for low-income pregnant women and their children. Social service agencies in communities with large immigrant populations have reported a spike in appointment cancellations and “urgent requests for dis-enrollment” from assistance programs. Nationwide, between 2016 and 2017, there was about a 5 percent decline in enrollment for SNAP and WIC. In counties with large immigrant populations, SNAP and WIC enrollment declines were closer to 10 percent.
My colleagues and I estimate that if all households with one or more non-citizens gave up the SNAP and WIC benefits to which their U.S. citizen children are entitled, more than 500,000 of the children could fall into poverty, and more than 200,000 of them could fall into deep poverty (below 50 percent of the Supplemental Poverty Measure threshold). The number of all children ― citizens and non-citizens ― living below the poverty line would increase by 8 percent, and the proportion living below the deep poverty line would increase by 16 percent. Approximately 60 percent of the reduction in child poverty since 2015 would be erased.
“Receiving non-cash public benefits like food assistance could become a liability during the vetting process for immigrants working to obtain legal permanent residence.”
It’s been well-documented that food insecurity in childhood can have long-term consequences. And as Hilary Hoynes and colleagues have shown, access to food assistance programs like SNAP in early childhood leads to significant reductions in obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes later in life. The DHS proposal will inarguably put the health and well-being of thousands of U.S. children at risk and will also set them up for health hardships as they age.
In addition to SNAP and WIC, the new public charge definition includes participation in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, transportation and housing voucher programs, and refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. However, immigrants may soon also abandon other much-needed non-cash assistance programs not included in the proposal ― such as emergency disaster relief and reduced-price school breakfast and lunch ― for fear that participation in any public assistance program will affect their immigration status.
The Trump administration’s proposal, along with the recent increase in non-criminal immigrant arrests, may already be triggering a mass exodus of immigrant families from public assistance programs ― and it’s children who will face the consequences. Without a course correction, the U.S. will soon see a measurable increase in the number of children living in poverty. Simply put, the DHS proposal should not become official policy.
Jennifer Laird is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.