Due to a quirk in the way most states calculate eligibility for food stamps, some families with illegal immigrants get favorable treatment over families with only American citizens, according to a report released Monday.
Under federal law, eligibility for food stamps depends on family size and income. States administer the program, however, and have flexibility in determining how to count income.
“The administration in most states — including most states with Republican governors — are wrong on this.”
In all but a handful of states, the income is counted in such a way that a family made up exclusively of Americans or permanent residents who have lived in the United States for at least five years are deemed ineligible — while a family with the exact same income can be eligible, as long as some of the income comes from an illegal immigrant or green card holder with fewer than five years of residency.
The Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which produced the report, estimates that perhaps 460,000 families are receiving food stamps as a result of this policy, at a cost to taxpayers of about $1 billion.
“The administration in most states — including most states with Republican governors — are wrong on this,” said David North, a fellow at the think tank and the author of the report. “It’s peculiar. Nobody’s really paid too much attention to it until now.”
The discrepancy arises from a decision about how to count money earned by family members who are ineligible to receive food stamps, either because they are illegal immigrants or lawful immigrants who have been in the country fewer than five years. Most states decide to count a prorated share of that person’s income.
Take, for example, a single mother with two children, all of whom are American, applying for food stamps. If the mother’s income before taxes was $3,000 per month, it would exceed the income limit of $2,177 for a family of three. The family, therefore, would be denied.
[lz_table title=”Food Stamp Quirk” source=”Center for Immigration Service”]Ineligible: All-citizen family
Dad makes $2400 a month & exceeds $2177 cap for family of three.
|Eligible: Mixed family
Illegal immigrant makes $2400.
Income pro-rated to $1600.
Family gets food stamps for 2 U.S.-born kids.
Compare that to a second family of three with the same income, only the mother in this family is an illegal immigrant. Under federal law, she would ineligible for food stamps, but if her children were born in the United States, they would be eligible. In most states, authorities would count two-thirds of the woman’s income, or $2,000 a month. That would qualify the family for food stamps for two people.
“The actual income of the family remains the same, but the count changes,” North said. “It means that given the same amount of income and same size family, the all-citizen family doesn’t get food stamps, and the family with the ineligible immigrant does.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the territory of Guam and five states — Arizona, Utah, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Massachusetts — treat all applicants the same by counting the entire income earned by ineligible immigrants. California and Oregon give special treatment in food stamp calculations to legal permanent residents with fewer than five years of U.S. residency, but not to illegal immigrants.
[lz_table title=”Not Favoring Illegal Immigrants” source=”Department of Agriculture”]
• New Mexico
• North Carolina
The eligibility quirk is unique to the food stamp program among the myriad of government-assistance initiatives, North said.
“There’s nothing like it anywhere in the United States,” he said.
That same quirk sometimes causes families to lose their food stamps — even when their income does not change. An immigrant who comes to the United States legally cannot receive federal benefits until he has had a green card for five years. His full income does not count toward food stamp eligibility calculations as long as he lives with American citizens or long-term permanent residents.
Once that legal immigrant hits five years in the United States however, his full income becomes subject to the calculations. So a parent who recently immigrated and earns $3,000 a month would earn food stamps for his or her two U.S.-born children. But once he or she reaches five years in the country and his or her full income counts, the whole family would lose food stamps.
North said he does not know how many families have lost food stamps under those circumstances — but added that social services workers have talked about those who have.
“That’s the population who knows about it,” he said. “This is a terribly insignificant group, politically … The victims don’t know about it except for this very special, little group.”
Since the federal government pays the cost of food stamps, giving preferential treatment to income earned by illegal immigrants is a way for local policymakers to bring more dollars into their states. But it disadvantages their own citizens.