Eligible Immigrants Aren't Applying for Food-Stamp Benefits

New research shows that very few eligible citizens and legal non-citizens of Mexican heritage are taking advantage of SNAP.
(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Nov 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What about the kids? It seems that’s a question we should start asking ourselves sooner rather than later, specifically in the context of the ugly political rhetoric surrounding immigration these days, and what effect that will have on one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States: the children of low-income Mexican families. Early-warning signs point to a crisis whose consequences could be felt for years.

Timely research published this month by the journal Social Science Research analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found only 17 percent of low-income households that included both noncitizen and citizen Mexican immigrants participated in the federal food stamp program, formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That’s nearly half the rate of low-income native U.S. households. Among low-income households consisting solely of Mexico-born noncitizens, the rate was a scant 1 percent.

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that when we talk about “noncitizen Mexican immigrants” here, we’re not talking about undocumented immigrants. Despite the reams of insidious propaganda coming from alt-right America regarding the supposed drain on our social services caused by illegal immigration, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive a dime in food stamps.

Rather, we’re talking about Mexican immigrants with legal status. A household of both noncitizens and citizens—a “Mexican mixed citizen” household, in demographic-speak—might include, for example, Mexico-born parents with a green card and children who were born here.

The SNAP eligibility requirements for noncitizens can be complicated, which is one reason why the participation rate among noncitizens might be substantially lower than that for native-born citizens (coupled with a potential language barrier). This in and of itself is a tragedy, considering that any child who is a U.S. citizen living in a household that falls below the income threshold for SNAP is eligible to receive food stamps, as is any nonnative child with legal status.

Where all this gets ominous, though, in the aftermath of the election and the hostility surrounding immigration is when you consider an analysis published last fall by Stephanie Potochnick, assistant professor in the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Potochnick also authored the Social Science Research study, but previously she found that the risk of food insecurity for Mexican noncitizen households with children was sharply higher—10 percent—in communities where local law enforcement targeted undocumented immigrants for arrest and deportation versus similar households in more tolerant communities.

“Evidence suggests that local-level immigration enforcement can generate fear and reduce social service use among Hispanic immigrant families who often live in the shadows, making it difficult to understand the health impacts of such policies,” Potochnick said last fall.

Yet if the fear ignited by a Trump-emboldened anti-immigrant sentiment—much less the president-elect making good on his promises to ramp up deportations—causes rates of SNAP participation among otherwise eligible low-income Mexican immigrant households to fall further, that would be a crisis, indeed.

Simply put, SNAP works—and it works really well for kids. Despite having become a regular lightening rod for conservative criticism, SNAP is among one of the most efficient social service programs we’ve got, and it has exceptionally low rates of fraud or abuse. More than 93 percent of SNAP funds go directly to food benefits; the rest—less than 7 percent—go toward administering those benefits.

The vast majority of SNAP recipients are the working poor, the elderly, and the disabled—and children. Lots of children. In fact, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in any given month, one in four children in the United States receives SNAP benefits. Nearly a third—yes, a third—of preschoolers participate in SNAP. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence out there concerning the impact of hunger on childhood development, it comes as little surprise that children who benefit from SNAP are more likely to do better in school and to complete high school than low-income peers who don’t receive benefits. They’re also less likely to suffer from ailments such as heart disease and obesity as adults.

So yes, as the country’s specious immigration debate rages on, it seems we should be asking “What about the kids?”