A new report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy (OCPP) finds that Oregon’s efforts to end child poverty increasingly depend on how effective the state’s public assistance system is in serving immigrant families. The report focuses particularly on changes needed in the state’s cash assistance and welfare-to-work program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), also known as “welfare.”
“If the number of immigrants living in Oregon continues to grow as rapidly as it did over the 1990s, the future of child poverty reduction in Oregon will require an increased focus on helping immigrant families,” said Michael Leachman, policy analyst at OCPP. The report points out that Oregon’s foreign-born population grew by 79 percent in the 1990s and that approximately 18 percent of all Oregon children under 150 percent of poverty are not citizens or are living with relatives who are not citizens.
Legal immigrants are not eligible for many federally funded public benefits if they arrived in the US after Congress passed the welfare reform law in 1996, especially during the first five years they live in the US. Most recent legal immigrants, for instance, cannot receive Food Stamps or the Oregon Health Plan to help them through the current economic downturn. Recent legal immigrants can receive cash assistance and welfare-to-work help through the TANF program, but only because Oregon – not the federal government – covers the cost of providing the services.
The report recommends that when Congress reauthorizes the TANF program later this year, it should allow states the option of using federal TANF funds to help recent legal immigrants.
“Legal immigrants who pay taxes and meet the work requirements should have access to federal benefits and services,” said Leachman. “Unless the federal law is changed, Oregon’s financial burden for providing this assistance will increase as the number of immigrants in Oregon who have arrived since welfare reform increases.”
The report also recommends that legal immigrants should be allowed to receive more extensive English training through the TANF program. Oregon’s Department of Human Services currently requires all TANF recipients – no matter how weak their English skills – to search for a job and to accept the first job offer.
“Immigrants who find jobs but are unable to speak English proficiently may be trapped in low-wage jobs, where they are more likely to need public assistance in the future,” said Leachman. “Oregon should adopt rules assuring that recipients achieve English proficiency before they are required to conduct work search or accept a job offer,” he said. “Also, legal immigrants who accept a job before achieving English proficiency should be offered ongoing work-oriented English training.”
The OCPP reported that officials with the Oregon Department of Human Services have said that they agree with the report’s recommendations to Congress, but are reluctant to implement the Oregon-specific recommendations due to budget constraints.
The report, “Improving the TANF Program for Legal Immigrants: Recommendations Based on the Oregon Experience,” is available on the web at www.www.ocpp.org/2002/es020213.htm. The Oregon Center for Public Policy is a non-profit research organization that analyzes budget, tax, and program issues important to low- and moderate-income Oregonians, the majority of Oregonians.