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November 26, 2002

Study Finds Welfare Initiatives Do Not Address Needs of Immigrant Families


WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 Many programs intended to lift people out of poverty by promoting marriage and mandating work do not address the realities of poor immigrants, a study released today has found.

The report, by the Urban Institute, a public policy research group in Washington, was based on a national survey of more than 42,000 households. The study showed that low-income immigrant families were more likely than their native counterparts to have two parents in the household and that poverty often persisted in these families despite the fact that both parents worked.

The study found, for example, that children of two-parent immigrant families were twice as likely to live in low-income households as children of two-parent native families. Low income is defined as less than twice the federal poverty line, which was $16,700 for a family of four in 1999.

"It shows that policies that assume low incomes are a result of not engaging in the work force, or not having stable families, are wide of the mark," said Michael Fix, director of immigration studies at the Urban Institute and an author of the study. "Since it is wages, not lack of employment or work ethic, that is at issue, what these families seem to need are work supports to enable them to boost their wages."

Such supports, according to immigrant advocacy groups that have reviewed the study, include language and job skills training and improved access to health care, child care and low-cost housing programs.

In particular, immigrant advocates say programs focusing on marriage promotion and work requirements divert attention and money from efforts to restore access to services for newer immigrants.

The findings should be "a call to action for Congress and the administration," said Marcela Urrutia, a policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "Both parties have been doing a really good job in their rhetoric to immigrant and Latino families, but to this point they haven't put their money where their mouths are."

Dr. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the study focused on the wrong data.

"The comparison should not be between married immigrants and nonimmigrants, but between married immigrants and nonmarried immigrants," Dr. Horn, a strong supporter of marriage promotion as part of welfare programs, said.

"If the comparison were fair," he said, "I'm certain it would indicate that nonmarried immigrant households are, in fact, poorer than married immigrant families."

Dr. Horn also called the study short-sighted. "The fact that the vast majority of these families work very hard is good news in the long term," he said. "The evidence shows that reliable workers get rewarded with additional opportunities."

The study does not cite individual cases, but the authors say challenges for immigrant families are especially persistent in states with recent booms in immigrant population.

An immigrant woman from Guatemala who would not allow her last name to be used because of the legal status of some family members said that improving the livelihood of her family seemed out of reach.

The woman, a housekeeper for a major hotel chain, moved a year ago with her husband and their three children to Nebraska, a state with a fast-growing immgrant population. She makes $7.04 an hour, and her husband, a dishwasher at a restaurant, makes $7.25 an hour. Each earns more than the minimum wage, but a recent study of living costs in Nebraska found that in a two-parent family with two children, each parent would need to make at least $10 an hour for the family to be self-sufficient.

Because the couple's three children are American citizens, they receive Medicaid, but the parents are uninsured. They speak limited English, and, because of their residency status, they are barred from or have difficulty gaining access to language and job-training programs.

"We're working just to be able to survive," said the woman, who said she relied on help from the Salvation Army and local schools for clothing and other necessities for the children. "I would look for another job with better pay, but I would need to be better qualified."

The Urban Institute study looked at the challenges faced by immigrant households like the Guatemalan woman's. It found that the percentages of children of immigrants in poor to fair health as opposed to good health are more than twice those of children of natives.

Stable family structure, though, appears to shield children in low-income immigrant families from other difficulties. Low-income working immigrant parents are less likely to read to their children or to be involved in community or school activities, the study found, but the children are no more likely than their counterparts in nonimmigrant families to exhibit behavioral problems or a lack of engagement in school.

"There are some inherent strengths in immigrant families that provide protective factors for children in some areas," said Randy Capps, an author of the study. "But the level of unmet need, in terms of health care, housing and food assistance, shows that there are areas in which there is a role for public policy to provide additional support."

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