Expert Commentary

Food stamp use by Mexican immigrant families: Welfare reform research

Research in Social Science Research indicates poor Mexican immigrant families are far less likely than poor U.S. native families to participate in the federal food stamp program.


The issue: The nation’s food stamp program provides low-income families and individuals with money for groceries but has been widely criticized for the number of people it serves and the types of foods that can be purchased with government funds. In fiscal year 2016, the United States government spent $55.7 billion to provide food assistance to 44.3 million people through the program it has renamed SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Among the most common criticisms is the program is open to individuals who are not U.S. citizens, including immigrants and refugees. Eligibility requirements for non-citizens have changed considerably over the last two decades. Before 1996, most non-citizens who were legal residents of the U.S. could receive food stamps on the same basis as citizens. But the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act – a major welfare reform law enacted under President Bill Clinton – kicked most non-citizens out of the program. Between 2002 and 2010, different types of non-citizens regained eligibility through implementation of The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, often referred to as the 2002 Farm Bill. A 62-page report from the SNAP program offers details on the history of the program and current non-citizen eligibility.

A study worth reading: Reversing Welfare Reform? Immigrant Restoration Efforts and Food Stamp Receipt among Mexican Immigrant Families,” published in Social Science Research, November 2016.

Study summary: Stephanie Potochnick, an assistant professor of public affairs and public health at the University of Missouri, sought to provide more information about Mexican immigrants’ access to food stamps and food in general. She used data from the U.S. Census’ 1995-2013 Current Population Survey to help gauge how the 2002 Farm Bill influenced food stamp participation among low-income Mexican immigrants, which she calls “the largest and most disadvantaged immigrant group.” Potochnick’s study sample includes almost 38,000 low-income households with children.

Key findings:

  • Among low-income households, Mexican immigrants were much less likely than U.S. native families to receive food stamps. On average, 17 percent of low-income “Mexican Mixed Citizen” households – households that were headed by a Mexican non-citizen but had members who were citizens – participated in the food stamp program. In comparison, 32 percent of low-income native U.S. households collected food stamps. One percent of low-income households comprised only of noncitizens born in Mexico received food stamps.
  • After adoption of the 2002 Farm Bill, food stamp participation rose among Mexican immigrants, except those who were likely to be undocumented.
  • Mexican immigrant households had higher unemployment rates than U.S. native households.
  • Mexican immigrant households were larger than U.S. native households. For example, Mexican Mixed Citizen households had 4.85 people, on average, compared to 3.98 people in U.S. native households.
  • Immigrant households were less educated. For example, in 49 percent of Mexican Mixed Citizen households, no one had finished high school. That was true for 13 percent of the U.S. native households included in the study.
  • Households headed by a Mexican-born, naturalized U.S. citizen were least likely to report that they experienced food insecurity, or challenges accessing and paying for food, within the previous 12 months.

Other resources for journalists:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides various reports on food stamp participation and cost.
  • The U.S. Census has created an interactive map that provides a snapshot of SNAP participants – including race, work status and household income — for every congressional district.
  • Low-income children qualify for free or reduced-priced meals through the federally-funded National School Lunch Program, offered in public schools, nonprofit private schools and some daycare centers.
  • The federally funded WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program offers food and nutrition education to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and the mothers of infants as well as children up to age 5.

Related research:


Keywords: Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, immigrant children, migrant farm workers, welfare reform

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