There has long been a provision in immigration law designed to weed out applicants for citizenship who are likely to become dependent on the state — to become “public charges,” in officialese. The previous rule focused on whether immigrants made use of public cash assistance, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or required subsidized long-term care. The new rule radically expands the list of programs that legal immigrants can be penalized for using to include food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers, among other things.
Yet the new strictures, set to go into effect Oct. 15, if lawsuits challenging them fail, are based on a false premise. They reflect an outdated assumption that native American workers ought to be, and largely are, self-sufficient (exceptional periods of hardship aside) and so immigrants should meet that standard, too. But reliance on public benefits has become a fact of life for a large swath of American workers, immigrants and nonimmigrants alike, because the past 40 years — thanks to global economic shifts, tax policies, technology, waning union power and the prioritization of corporate profit over wages — have remade American work.
The inadequacy of many working-class jobs today exposes the cruelty of the rule. If people who use food stamps count as public charges — as burdens on the economy — then lots of hard-working Americans, regardless of citizenship status, fall into that category.
A 2016 study by the Economic Policy Institute, for instance, found that, once the elderly are excluded, more than 70 percent of all public safety-net beneficiaries — including those who receive Medicaid, food stamps, housing aid and cash assistance — are working families or individuals, not unemployed people. Nearly half the recipients of such benefits work full time. A 2015 study, by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, found that the United States spends almost $153 billion every year on benefits for workers, most of them employed full time, and that the people who need government aid to survive include employees of large, profitable corporations such as McDonald’s, Walmart and Amazon (Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post). The study found that about half of fast-food workers, child-care workers and home health aides relied on public benefits — as did a quarter of part-time college faculty members. In New Hampshire, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Nebraska, more than 60 percent of all public assistance went to working families, the study found.
Tellingly, the Defense Department fought — successfully — to exempt active-duty military and reserve forces from the new public-charge rule. That could be because some service members are paid so poorly that, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, about 23,000 each year rely on food stamps. (There are 24,000 noncitizens on active duty, representing less than 2 percent of the total force; the GAO did not break down food stamp use by citizenship status.)
More and more workers are turning to federal, state and local safety net programs for help because the economy has become stacked against them. Since 1979, productivity — the output of goods and services per hour worked — has increased about 70 percent, while wages, which from the 1940s to the mid-1970s rose in lockstep with productivity, grew barely 12 percent.
In 1968, a full-time worker earning minimum wage could support a family of three, according to an analysis by David Cooper of the Economic Policy Institute. Today, such a job is not enough to keep a family of two out of poverty, nor to afford rent on a two-bedroom apartment in any state, county or metropolitan area. Overall, corporations are foisting the burden of supporting workers — regardless of their country of origin — onto taxpayers, and government is acquiescing in that arrangement.
After the Trump administration announced the public-charge rule, Danilo Trisi, a researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimated that roughly 15 percent of the current U.S. workforce would fall under the new regulation. The proportion was notably high in the leisure and hospitality field, where one-quarter of workers could be considered public charges. In the retail and “other services” sectors (the latter includes household workers), 1 in 5 met the government’s new definition. Should all of these people have their citizenship revoked?
The contradictions exposed by the new policy will only get sharper. Many of the job categories that require people to supplement their paychecks with public subsidies — especially the home health and home care fields — are also among those predicted to grow the fastest in the coming decades; many are also likely to be filled by women and people of color.
Applying the new rule’s standards to American workers reveals its unjustness. When she was starting out as a child-care worker in Binghamton, N.Y., Rashondah Anderson, a 29-year-old single mother, had to rely on food stamps, public housing, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But after the state of New York passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, she and her daughter now rely only on Medicaid — a fact that would still make her suspect if she were an immigrant applying for citizenship. She can’t afford a car, and she’s putting herself through school to get a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education — causing her to amass about $30,000 in student loan debt, which would be another strike against her were she an immigrant.
After 40 years taking care of the elderly and infirm, Virginia Grant, 63, a divorced mother and home health aide in Charleston, Ill., makes $13 an hour. When her three children were young, she relied on food stamps and Medicaid (and various part-time jobs) to make ends meet. She doesn’t have to do that anymore, but because she doesn’t have consistent full-time hours every week, she may not meet the threshold income of at least 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline — $15,613 a year for a single person — that the public-charge rule will require of new immigrants
In defending the new rule, Cuccinelli, of Citizenship and Immigration Services, argued that immigrants shouldn’t become a burden on the “already, frankly, overburdened and bankrupt welfare system.” But the larger question we should be asking is: Why is the U.S. economy producing so many jobs that force its workers, whether citizens or noncitizens, to make use of those very welfare programs?