Immigrant families appear to be dropping out of food stamps

Originally posted on Politico.

President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration rhetoric and policies may be driving low-income immigrant families away from food stamps.

Immigrant households legally eligible for food-stamp benefits stopped participating in the program at a higher-than-normal rate in the first half of this year, a preliminary study released this week indicates.

The data is the first broad look at Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation declines among immigrants, surveying more than 35,000 mothers across five U.S. cities.It found that participation in the SNAP dropped by nearly 10 percentage points in the first half of 2018 for immigrant households that are eligible for the program and have been in the United States less than five years.

The study seems to confirm months of anecdotal reports, from New York to San Antonio, Texas, that widespread fear in immigrant communities has had a chilling effect on participation in SNAP and other government aid programs like WIC, a federal nutrition program aimed at pregnant women and children.

“We were hearing the anecdotal reports of people dropping out of SNAP and WIC, so we started looking at our data to see if that was true among the families we interview,” said Allison Bovell-Ammon, lead researcher and deputy director for policy strategy at Boston Medical Center’s Children’s HealthWatch, which conducted the study.

Children’s HealthWatch is a network of pediatricians and health researchers that tracks data from urban hospitals across the country, with the goal of measuring how various policies are impacting children in real time.

The notion that low-income families who are legally eligible for government assistance but are afraid to access such services is alarming for anti-hunger and health advocates.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive SNAP benefits, but households can receive assistance for their U.S. citizen children if they meet the income requirements.

The latest SNAP study surveyed mothers of children four years and younger in five cities: Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Little Rock, Ark. Researchers interviewed immigrant families in primary clinics and emergency rooms, asking questions about their family’s level of food security as well as participation in SNAP, among other topics.

The report found that SNAP participation had been increasing between 2007 and 2017 for immigrant families whose mothers had been in the United States for less than five years. The rate of participation had gone up to 43 percent over those 10 years. But in the first half of 2018 the trend started to reverse, the survey showed, dropping nearly 10 percentage points to 34.8 percent for the same subset of families.

Immigrant families with mothers who have been in the U.S. more than five years did not show a steep decline. Among these families, SNAP participation declined from 44.7 percent to 42.7 percent, a 2 percentage point drop.

The SNAP study, which is preliminary and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, was released this week at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in San Diego.

Researchers cautioned that there could be many explanations for the trend, though they surmise the current political environment is a major contributing factor. In a statement announcing the results, Bovell-Ammon cited immigration rhetoric, increased immigration enforcement and detention, and other policy changes, as potential drivers.

“We think that’s a likely reason for many people dropping out, but it could also be because the economy is improving as well,” Bovell-Ammon told POLITICO in an interview. “I am a little cautious to not over extrapolate the results to a single cause.”

SNAP enrollment has been dropping as the economy has improved, but the numbers have not returned to pre-recession levels. At its peak in 2013, the program covered 47 million people. The numbers have dropped closer to 41 million, according to the most recent figures from USDA.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers SNAP at the national level, said it won’t comment on unpublished data, but a spokesperson said the agency appreciated studies “about these valuable programs.”

“FNS wants to ensure that all individuals eligible for our programs have access to the nutrition assistance they need to live healthy, productive lives,” the USDA spokesperson said.

The study comes after the Trump administration released this fall a “public charge” proposal that would make it more difficult for individuals seeking admission or legal permanent residency in the United States if they have used a broad range of government assistance programs, including SNAP. Such a move would be a major change in federal policy.

The survey data released this week found that food insecurity is increasing for immigrant families. The trend is particularly negative for families where the mother has been in the U.S. less than five years.

For decades, immigration officials have looked narrowly at whether someone would need cash benefits such as welfare or long-term institutional care to determine if they’re likely to become a so-called public charge. The Trump administration is proposing to expand the definition to look at a much longer list of services, including non-cash assistance like SNAP and Medicaid.

An earlier leaked version of the Trump administration’s proposal also included the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, on the list of programs that would be a strike against seeking a green card, for example.

That program was dropped from the public charge proposal after POLITICO reported that immigrants across several states were turning down WIC. Public health advocates say an undue decline in WIC participation could lead to poor health outcomes for low-income infants.

“I think this data really does confirm these anecdotes we’ve been hearing,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal and SNAP at the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger nonprofit group based in Washington.

The complexity of immigration policy makes it extremely difficult for anti-hunger and public health advocates to communicate how a proposed change to public charge, for example, will affect families across the board.

“It’s very hard to parse out everybody’s individual immigration status or situation,” Vollinger said.

It’s also likely that any final proposal will be tied up in the court system for a while, as advocates are expected to sue the administration. In the meantime, there’s a major national push to flood the DHS, which issued the proposed rule, to oppose the change. The comment period on the changes to the public charge rule closes on Dec. 10.