Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Poverty and the Safety Net Among Immigrants in California

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 4:30 PM
Stanford (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Bohn1, Caroline Danielson1 and Sara Kimberlin2, (1)Public Policy Institute of California, (2)Stanford University
Researchers have devoted significant effort to improving the measurement of economic scarcity in the U.S. in recent years. These efforts have resulted in the federal Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) and a family of state measures (Short, 2014; Bohn, Danielson, Levin, Mattingly, and Wimer, 2013; Cable, 2013; Isaacs et al, 2013; NYCEO, 2012; Wheaton et al, 2011). These measures arguably provide better estimates of need than 1950’s era official poverty statistics by utilizing (1) up-to-date thresholds of need that account for regional variation in cost of living and (2) a more comprehensive estimate of family resources that includes not only pre-tax cash income but also tax credits (or payments) and near-cash support from food and housing assistance programs.  

This paper focuses on poverty among immigrants in California, both a high poverty population and one with complex standing with regard to anti-poverty government policy. The California Poverty Measure (CPM), an SPM-style metric (Bohn et al, 2013), includes a module for identifying immigrant legal status in American Community Survey (ACS) micro-data and correctly imputing their participation in means-tested programs (that is to say, not imputing participation even though low income levels would otherwise make them eligible). While these efforts were undertaken initially to improve accuracy in overall state poverty estimates, we now turn our attention to the legal and unauthorized immigrant population of the state for the purpose of better understanding their poverty status and the role of public policy in mitigating need among immigrants and their families.

The goals of this paper are threefold.  First, we test the robustness of our procedure for classifying the foreign-born in the ACS.  In developing the CPM we paid particular attention to the large unauthorized population in California (7% of the state population).  Using an approach similar to Passel and Cohn (2009) and detailed control totals from Hill and Johnson (2011), we assign unauthorized status to immigrant respondents in the ACS.  In this paper we compare our methodology to recent alternative approaches (Van Hook et al, 2014; Warren, 2014) and assess error in our methodology via bootstrapped estimates.

Second, we assess poverty and program participation among immigrants according to legal status, in more detail than has yet been available due largely to data constraints. Because unauthorized immigrants are for the most part ineligible for government programs, their poverty status under updated poverty metrics is likely to be substantially higher. Nonetheless, many unauthorized immigrants live in mixed-status households where native-born or legal immigrant family members may be eligible for safety net benefits (especially children).  Because households are assumed to share resources, government programs have the potential to mitigate poverty even for ineligible immigrants. We assess the role of government programs for both immigrants and their family members.

Finally, we consider several policy scenarios (DACA, DAPA, and full amnesty) that would make program benefits more available to families with unauthorized immigrants and compute counterfactual poverty rates both for these immigrants and for other members of their families.