Do High Percentages of Refugees Receive Food Stamps, ‘Medicard,’ and Cash Welfare?
A meme pairs an image of women in burqas with a claim most refugees receive food stamps, Medicare/Medicaid, and “cash welfare.”
The image-based meme provided no citations or links substantiating its claims. Along with a photograph of a group of women wearing burqas, misspelled text read:
MIDDLE EASTERN REFUGEES IN USA:
91% RECIEVE FOOD STAMPS.
73% ON MEDICARD.
63% ON CASH WELFARE.
The meme contained grammar and spelling errors and read as though it had possibly been created by someone for whom English was not a native language. “Receive” was misspelled,” as was “Medicard” — presumably the meme maker meant “Medicaid,” but as written it could also be read as “Medicare.”
It also made reference to “cash welfare.”But the 1996 introduction of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF] “effectively killed cash assistance” under President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform initiative:
With support from both sides of the aisle—and amid an ongoing stigmatization of welfare as a “dependency” program for black single mothers—former President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996. The legislation took the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, program—a 60-year-old stalwart created by Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s Social Security Act—and effectively dismantled it. A more meager program, TANF, took its place.
The biggest change from AFDC to TANF was the funding structure. Clinton’s welfare reform eliminated AFDC’s open-ended funding structure and replaced it with a block grant to states that would not increase over the years to adjust for inflation. States were required to spend a certain amount of their own money to match federal dollars, but could also spread some of that money around to other, loosely-defined public-assistance programs that didn’t necessarily provide cash benefits. States were also bound by TANF’s work requirements, and could lose federal dollars if the number of working enrollees fell below a specific threshold.
With TANF rapidly disappearing as a benefit even among those on the margins of American poverty, it’s really just SNAP and Medicaid keeping most of the nonelderly poor afloat. And degraded food-stamps, housing, and public health-insurance programs could have even more visceral effects than the loss of cash assistance.
“Cash welfare” as Americans knew it from the Roosevelt New Deal era through the late 1990s was phased out, and replaced by welfare-to-work (or “workfare”) programs. But neither would apply to refugees to the United States, which points to an element central to the meme’s claims — what is a “refugee”?
Refugees, Asylees, and Other Immigrants
Refugees are often referenced in immigration debate rhetoric, but their classification and entrance process to the United States is very different from most immigrants. According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), after strict criteria are met, some assistance is available to refugees successfully accepted into the program:
Under United States law, a refugee is someone who:
- Is located outside of the United States
- Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States
- Demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group
- Is not firmly resettled in another country
- Is admissible to the United States
If you are approved as a refugee, you will receive a medical exam, a cultural orientation, help with your travel plans, and a loan for your travel to the United States. After you arrive, you will be eligible for medical and cash assistance.
By their very status, refugees come to the United States due to risks or danger faced in their country of origin. (No particular benefit applied to refugees from a specific region of the world, as the meme insinuates.) After applying and being approved for refugee status, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) receives their cases and assists them in resettling in the United States:
ORR provides time-limited cash and medical assistance to new arrivals, as well as support for case management services, English as a Foreign Language classes, and job readiness and employment services – all designed to facilitate refugees’ successful transition to life in the U.S. and help them to attain self-sufficiency.
ORR supports additional programs to serve all eligible populations beyond the first eight months post-arrival, including micro-enterprise development, ethnic community self-help and agricultural partnerships. In addition, ORR provides services for survivors of torture.
Refugee status in the United States comes with a period of eight months in which certain assistance is provided as a matter of course, so individuals eligible for resettlement can successfully navigate the process, and at least some of that assistance is a loan, not a gift. The numbers cited in the meme make little sense contrasted with facts about the refugee program, in which presumably all who receive refugee status are entitled to extremely time-limited assistance [PDF].
A specified period of eight months was not solely for federal aid, as states also adopted the time limitation in their own programs for refugee assistance. All three of the meme’s metrics (“food stamps” of SNAP, Medicaid, and cash assistance) are addressed under one aspect of the program:
The Cash and Medical Assistance (CMA) Program is part of the Division of Refugee Assistance. CMA reimburses states for 100 percent of services provided to refugees and other eligible persons, as well as associated administrative costs. Programs eligible for reimbursement include:
- Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA)
- Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA)
- Unaccompanied Refugee Minors
ORR clients determined ineligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid may be eligible for RCA and RMA for up to eight months from the date of arrival in the U.S., date of final grant of asylum for asylees and date of certification for trafficking victims.
Refugees in the United States are unquestionably provided a brief period of assisted expenses during resettlement under the highly-structured protocols to various federal and state agencies adhere. But we were unable to find any substantiation for the specific numbers in this meme anywhere. If such a credible statistic even existed, it was well hidden, but it is more likely that these numbers, like many others about refugees and asylum-seekers, were simply made up.
… a new study shows that refugees end up paying more in taxes than they receive in welfare benefits after just eight years of living in this country.
By the time refugees who entered the U.S. as adults have been here for 20 years, they will have paid, on average, $21,000 more in taxes to all levels of government than they received in benefits over that time span, according to a working paper released [in June 2017] by the National Bureau of Economic Research that examined the economic and social outcomes of refugees in the U.S.
In addition, refugees, unlike other immigrants, are eligible for welfare cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid. Those social safety net costs amount to roughly $92,000 in benefits over a refugee’s first 20 years in the U.S. — while the refugee pays a total of $129,000 in taxes over the same time period, researchers found.
A Washington Post article summarized researchers’ findings:
Refugees who arrive between the ages of 18 and 45, meanwhile, start out in the country with low employment and earnings and rely heavily on welfare programs. But after six years in the U.S., they work at higher rates than their U.S.-born counterparts — though their wages never catch up. After 10 years, their use of welfare and food stamps are comparable to native-born Americans.
The paper itself concluded:
Refugees that arrive as adults have much poorer human capital measures than U.S.-born residents of similar ages. For example, they have fewer years of education and much weaker English language skills. Subsequently, early on in their time in the U.S., adult refugees have lower levels of employment and earnings and higher welfare participation than their U.S.-born peers. These outcomes change dramatically over time, with earnings and employment increasingly rapidly and welfare use declining as refugees age in place. After about six years in the U.S., refugees have higher labor force participation and employment rates compared to similarly-aged U.S.-born residents.
After about 10 years, they have statistically indistinguishable use of welfare and SNAP. Despite these successes, they never earn as much on average as similarly-aged natives. A number of commentators have argued that the refugee program is too expensive given the direct costs of resettlement and the high costs of participation in social service programs by refugees. Our results above indicate that the intertemporal dimension of this problem is key in examining how one views this program. At the start of their U.S. residency, refugees do extract high costs because of the direct costs of relocation and high welfare use. However, over time these costs decrease quickly, and our estimates show that over a twenty-year period, refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits.
The meme stated that high percentages of refugees received “food stamps,” “Medicard,” and “cash welfare.” We found nothing resembling those statistics anywhere, and it’s likely no such percentages were compiled from credible data, or any data at all.
When refugees enter the United States, they are entitled to eight months of limited medical, housing, and living expenses through state and federal programs. An actual paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017 examined the overall question of whether refugees are a financial burden on the United States.
NBER found that refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that overall they eventually have higher participation and employment rates than native born Americans. By the only credible metric we located, the meme was misleading, corrosive, and untrue.