Citizen Benefits

The Struggle and Drive for Citizen Benefits

Haley Verheyen, December 2014

Immigrant: a person or persons moving into another country where one is not native and settles. A time in their life where they’re now living in a place they may have never been before and may be completely alone, or planning to make the next big step in leaving all that they know. Possibly the most nerve-racking time of their life, questioning where they will get money for their next meal or how they will put a roof over their family’s heads. How will they be able to make a life for themselves when they came here with nothing? They have very little rights in this country they are now living in and the only possible way to stay afloat is help from the government. In 1996 the reality of government assistance came to a halt for immigrants residing and planning to reside in the United States. Under the Clinton administration the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) was a major setback for immigrants. The overall outcome to deplete welfare dependence in the US, it “was designed as a sweeping reform of current welfare policies, with the goal of creating a social service and financial assistance program that was time-limited and required that participants engage in work-related activities, to include education, training, or actual employment.” [1] Increased incentives for naturalization and lowering rates of government dependence were direct results of the passage and implementation of the PRWORA of 1996.

In the years before the immigration bill was passed legal immigrants in the United states were eligible for governments aid such as food stamps, security income for disabled and the elderly along with other benefits. [2] The former Aid to Families with Dependent Children Act was used by whoever needed money and the initial intentions of it were lost. [3] Many immigrants that had come to our country with nothing were utilizing this for their only income. Some had no plans to move on from the support and construct thriving lives without it. Taking a closer look at what President Clinton was trying to accomplish when he signed the welfare act of 1996, it was formed to give people incentive to make their way out of poverty. It was developed to help them establish jobs and give them financial support for a maximum of fives years, to get an education and to create a better future along with helping support the elders who had put in their time but needed some support to be able to live the rest of their lives. The passage of this act drastically curtailed the number of those eligible for benefits unfortunately causing it to be limited to legal citizens only.

Leading to such a dramatic change in eligibility, it worried many immigrants already living in or planning to immigrate into the US. These benefits had been some of the major programs playing key roles in their survival. This brought major fear to the non -citizens of the country. With the implementation of the PRWORA the new regulations of checking citizen status to receive these benefits were now under strict control. Although other programs were said to be put in place to give financial assistance through grants, it was not as much compensation as the previous benefits they were receiving and was not on the federal level. In fear of losing all benefits many non-citizens were now looking into getting legal citizenship to ensure that they would not be cut off. Over the next decade the benefit of naturalization for immigrants of all ages started to increase. As a direct result of becoming a naturalized citizen one would now be able to collect government benefits and have other legal right associated with their citizenship. However was this alone enough for one to want to become a citizen, to give up freedoms they have from their home countries, just to be able to get some financial assistance? This new act was not intended to force non-citizens into citizenship but to establish a more structured economic spending throughout the US.

Under the PRWORA changes in the number of people now dependent on the government started to decrease. A study by George Borjas shows that for several years before the welfare act was in place the amount of people dependent on government aid was very steady. In the years following 1996 however the amount of people now dependent on this started to decrease. In the study of households receiving assistance between 1994-1996 about 38% of the US was receiving some sort of government aid, 23% being immigrants and 15% being citizens. After the PRWORA was passed rates of dependence fell to 33% with 13% being citizens of the US and 20% being immigrants. [4] During the time after the welfare act was passed the percentage of immigrants still dependent on the government were under dire circumstances, as those were the ones that needed emergency medical care and food. Those individuals would not be turned away in emergency situations but were not given any extra government aid. Although this act cut off immigrants it did open the door for individual states to implement their own aid for immigrants that resided in their states. While it was an option for some states to formulate a program to give some aid to those immigrants who were now turned away from the federal government some did not take this approach.

The immigrants who were looking towards gaining citizenship to qualify for citizen benefits now had to go through some obstacle in order to qualify for naturalization, some were not able to just apply for naturalization but had guidelines that they had to follow. The person applying had to be at minimum of 18 years or older, a legal permanent resident which had to live in the country for more than 5 years. They had to show that they were of good moral character with no criminal record. They also had to take a test of American government and history, and be able to show that they could speak, write and understand the English language. [5] However some cases varied depending on marriage status and children that may have already been citizens of the US. These guidelines of who would be able to become a citizen, however was not a simple process. This was something that wouldn’t happen over night and could be a long road from some to go down.

There had to be an overall push for people to go through this. During this time some could have wanted to be naturalized for “the most prominent political right being the right to vote and the major economic right being access to certain employment opportunities. Those who become citizens will be able to vote and to pursue new job possibilities; in turn, they are expected to embrace largely uniform national identifications”[6] There will also be the other group that pursues naturalization for the benefit of government. When looking at those people though, the benefits have to outweigh the trouble. As some state offer a bridge of assistance they now had to look at how much assistance immigrants would offered. This idea by Irene Bloemraad says the drive to naturalize will not just come from the fact that they were cut off totally from the government but will start at a state level. As they are now not getting government benefits it made them turn to their state level politics and see what they were offering them. They had to take into consideration how much aid they received when they arrived in the state and how they were treated in the process. That this process would have stimulated the want to better themselves, to learn about job opportunities that they could now be considered for. The states have to make them feel eligible for these incentives to make them want to naturalize. [7] As some immigrant felt this warm feeling others may have not and would sway their desire to push for naturalization.

In the years after the PRWORA was put into place the incentives different states were now offering to immigrants were examined. According to the study recorded by Wendy Zimmermann and Karen Tulmin in 1999 the average amount of states that increased welfare benefits on a state level compensating for the new federal reform increased significantly in the years after the reform was passed. The study also concluded that the potential for naturalization also increased in the years following the passage. The study stated that the amount of favorable immigrants moving towards naturalization increased to 15.8% from 3.4% in pre reform times. Also stating that the states with high access to benefits for noncitizens had an increase of naturalization potential to 14.7% from 2.3% pre reform whereas states with low access to benefits had a smaller increase of 11.2% from 5.1% [8]

The data from these studies can concluded that those states providing great backing for their non-citizens experienced a greater increase of naturalization than those who did not support their immigrant population. As stated by the study above the more support that is provided to immigrants who have nothing, the more they will be able to see the benefits that the state has to offer. After the passage of the 1996 welfare reform act the immigrant population went through a great culture shock. Although it led to decrease in those able to collect off the government it called for an increase in support at local and state level. As immigrants were starting to get more backing from the states in which they resided, immigrants were able to gain more interest to naturalize in the US. This interest led to an increase in eligibility for many other government benefits that could in turn stimulated the economy and slowly helped guide people off the welfare system and allow them to support themselves. Although this may not have been the intention of the PRWORA this led to a chain reaction of immigrants using state benefits as incentives for naturalization.


[1] Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.” United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families , 2006, 324-28. Accessed October 1, 2014.

[2] Soto Lucy, STAFF WRITER. “The Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Act of Changing Face of Welfare Immigrants are Struggling to Find Out how it Will Affect them and their Families.” The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Aug 15, 1996.

[3] “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.” 325.

[4] Borjas, George J. “Welfare Reform and Immigrant Participation in Welfare Programs.” The International Migration Review 36, no. 4 (Winter, 2002): 1093-1123, 1101

[5] Van Hook, Jennifer, Susan K. Brown, and Frank D. Bean. “For Love Or Money? Welfare Reform and Immigrant Naturalization.” Social Forces 85, no. 2 (12, 2006): 643-666, 645

[6] Ibid. 653

[7] Ibid. 654

[8] Ibid. 655

Further Reading

Espenshade Thomas J., Jessica L. Baraka and Gregory A. Huber, “Implications of the 1996 Welfare and Immigration Reform Acts for US Immigration,” Population and Development Review Vol. 23, No. 4 Dec., 1997.

Treas, Judith. “Older Immigrants and U.S. Welfare Reform,” The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 17, no. 9 1997.

Worcester State University Fall 2020