Mexican immigrants more likely to move from welfare to work

July 24, 2009

Prior to welfare reform, Mexican immigrants were more likely than other groups to transition from welfare to work, particularly in states that provided more generous welfare benefits, according to sociologists.

"This research refutes welfare reform assumptions that immigrants and disadvantaged native citizens seek out and maintain welfare assistance for the same reasons," said Jennifer Van Hook, associate professor of sociology and demography in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. "In the case of Mexican immigrants, welfare seems to be used primarily to minimize the effects of gaps in employment, not to avoid work or perpetuate dependency."

Among women who reported receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, the pre-welfare reform version of TANF), Mexican immigrants were significantly more likely to exit welfare within one year (57.7 percent) than were white (37.9 percent) or black (36.4 percent) natives.

Using samples of 4,071 racially diverse immigrant women and 9,265 white or black native women from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), Van Hook and Frank D. Bean, University of California-Irvine, analyzed longitudinal data from the 1990 through 1993 annual SIPP panels. The researchers chose to analyze pre-welfare reform data due to the lack of special restrictions related to migration status on the welfare eligibility of legal immigrants. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (Welfare Reform Act) of 1996 barred legal immigrants entering the United States after Aug. 22, 1996, from receiving assistance for the first five years after entry.

The research underscores the importance of taking cultural considerations into account in explaining immigrant welfare behaviors. Van Hook and Bean attribute the lower rates of welfare receipt and higher rates of post-welfare employment of Mexican immigrant women to the strong pro-employment cultural orientation among these immigrants.

"Our research suggests that the strong involvement of work and family in the Mexican decision to migrate leads to the prioritization of employment well after migration, minimizing welfare receipt and increasing post-welfare employment," Van Hook said. "Further, immigrant public assistance may in fact have a positive effect on integration, helping immigrants to work their way out of poverty and off of welfare."

Welfare reform is not likely to deter future Mexican immigration, according to Van Hook and Bean, if policymakers are indeed misguided in assuming that immigrants are drawn to the United States by welfare, or that immigrants assimilate into welfare. Instead, welfare reform actually may delay economic incorporation, particularly if no other form of economic settlement assistance is available to immigrants experiencing conditions of great economic need.

The findings were published in their article "Explaining Mexican Immigrant Welfare Behaviors: The Importance of Employment-Related Cultural Repertoires" in the June issue of American Sociological Review.


Last Updated July 28, 2017