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Fewer Immigrant Families Are Signing Up For Federal Food Assistance

The study surveyed 35,000 immigrant mothers of U.S.-born children in five U.S. cities.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
The study surveyed 35,000 immigrant mothers of U.S.-born children in five U.S. cities.

After 10 years of consistent gains, the number of immigrant families enrolled in SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, fell by 10 percent in 2018.

New, preliminary research presented this month at the American Public Health Association conference shows that the drop was highest for for families who have been in the U.S. for fewer than five years. It's a reflection of what Harvest Public Media and other outlets reported earlier this year: Some families may be choosing not to participate in federal benefit programs out of fear that it could impact their immigration status.

Lead researcher Allison Bovell-Ammon, at Boston Medical Center, cautions that the research is ongoing and that there are many possible explanations, including an improved economy. But, she says: "We think that these policies are forcing immigrants to choose between feeding their children today and what their future immigration status may be."

The study surveyed 35,000 immigrant mothers of U.S.-born children in five U.S. cities, including Boston and Baltimore. Unauthorized immigrants cannot receive food stamps, but their children may be eligible if they're U.S. citizens and live in a household that's at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines — about $2,700 a month for a family of four.

Bovell-Ammon points to a policy known as "public charge," which has been a part of U.S. immigration policy since 1882 and was intended to prevent people coming into the country who were likely to be financially dependent (i.e. those who had criminal records or mental health disorders).

The Trump administration recently proposed broadening that policy to include individuals who have used public benefit programs, including SNAP and Medicaid. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statementthat the policy change would "promote immigrant self-sufficiency" and ensure that they "are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers."

Overall, the number of people enrolled in SNAP has decreased; from August 2017 to August of this year, enrollment declined by more than 940,000 households. But there are still more than 19 million households that receive some level of federal food benefits, and a proposal to change the work requirements for SNAP has been a major sticking point in the negotiations over the overdue farm bill.

Thisstory comes to us from, a reporting collaboration focused on food and agriculture. Follow Esther on Twitter:@estherhonig

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Esther Honig