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Welfare reform and immigrant fertility


Immigration policy is at the forefront of US policy discussions, and the use of welfare benefits by immigrants has been hotly debated. In 1996, Congress enacted welfare reform legislation, which imposed strict restrictions on welfare eligibility for noncitizens. However, a number of states restored access to welfare benefits to immigrants that had been cut out in the federal welfare reform law. Using data from the Current Population Survey, we examine whether immigrant women adjusted their childbearing in response to changes in the generosity of welfare benefits at the state-level. We find that noncitizen women reduced their fertility in response to cutbacks imposed by the legislation. Our findings, which prove robust to a number of identification and robustness checks, underscore how immigrants respond to state-level policies and provide insight into the potential impacts of comprehensive immigration reform, particularly the components related to the path to citizenship and access to public benefits.

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  1. Similar to Borjas (2003), we do not use the years 1996 and 1997 in our analysis. This allows us to isolate the pre- and post-PRWORA time periods. The June CPS fertility survey was not conducted in 1999.

  2. Immigrant participation in welfare programs kept on growing since then (Borjas 2003). Hence, one might ask: Why did some states decide to maintain immigrants’ access to programs such as TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid, while other states did not? Early work on this question indicated that the size of the state’s noncitizen population was unrelated to program generosity toward immigrants in the first years following PRWORA (Zimmermann and Tumlin 1999). However, states with strong immigrant advocacy groups and a liberal voting public were more consistent predictors of state generosity toward immigrants (Graefe et al. 2008). We also examined this question in our endogeneity tests and did not find a relationship between the share of immigrants and the generosity of states (see Table 7).

  3. See Bachu and O’Connell 2001 for more details about the June CPS and the fertility of American women.

  4. There are several ways that immigrants can be categorized: naturalized citizens (foreign-born individuals who became citizens), legal permanent residents (noncitizens who have been granted permission to reside permanently in the USA and to apply for naturalization after meeting certain requirements), and refugees and asylees (individuals admitted to the USA who are unable or unwilling to return to their home countries due to legitimate fear of persecution). In addition, the foreign-born population includes legal temporary residents (e.g., students or those with temporary work visas) and undocumented immigrants (individuals who stay in the USA illegally; i.e., beyond their visa limits or those who enter the country illegally and stay).

  5. Because immigrants who have been in the country for 5 years or longer could apply for benefits, splitting the sample according to the migration spell of migrants would make sense given that the cutbacks exclusively impacted newly arrived immigrants. Note, however, that our last year of data is 2000 and PRWORA was enacted in 1996. Therefore, all naturalized immigrants (all with, at least, 5 years of permanent residency in the USA) in our sample had arrived pre-PRWORA. Similarly, all immigrants who arrived post-PRWORA in our sample are noncitizens.

  6. In our specification, the variable post includes all foreign-born noncitizens and does not split them by pre- and post-1996 arrival date. An alternative model would separate the post-1996 arrivals to address the impact of the policy change on those directly targeted. However, our sample limitations preclude this possibility.

  7. It is interesting to note how the policy impact loses significance as we include information on migrants’ arrival cohort. Yet, the policy impact reemerges as soon as we account for basic state and year fixed-effects.

  8. Although the standard errors are larger for the naturalized immigrant sample indicating less precision for this subgroup of immigrants, the point estimates are small and indicate that there was no significant effect for this sample.

  9. Note that the standard errors for this group are quite a bit larger, but the point estimates also fall by around half, making this group less responsive than the foreign-born noncitizen group. Nonetheless, any response to the policy by this group would be evidence of a chilling effect.

  10. Because we have 2 years of data prior to PRWORA, we are able to include one lead-year in our model. Our reference period then becomes 1994.

  11. We deem the specification in Table 8 as the most appropriate, as it accounts for the state’s population size. Nevertheless, we continue to obtain the same results when we use, instead, other measures of immigrant placement, including the absolute number of immigrants in the state or the share of immigrants in the state relative to the total in the country. These results are available from the authors.

  12. This information was gathered from Bitler and Hoynes (2011).

  13. For immigration population in states see: Last accessed 6/16/2015.


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The authors thank Laura Argys and seminar participants at Colgate University, IZA Bonn and Colorado State University for helpful comments on earlier drafts. They also appreciate the feedback received from three anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Cynthia A. Bansak.

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Responsible editor: Klaus F. Zimmermann



Table 13 State-funded assistance to immigrants after 1996
Table 14 Weighted sample descriptive statistics

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Amuedo-Dorantes, C., Averett, S.L. & Bansak, C.A. Welfare reform and immigrant fertility. J Popul Econ 29, 757–779 (2016).

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  • Welfare reform
  • Immigrants
  • Fertility

JEL Classification

  • I38
  • J13
  • J15