Amnesty and the Welfare State

As we contemplate granting full citizenship to millions more legal and illegal low-skilled immigrants, it would be wise to review the status of the current welfare state.  Robert Rector and Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation, two of the leading experts on welfare policy and poverty, have put out an informative report on the welfare state and where we are headed in terms of reform policies.  Here are some of the key points:

  • In 2011, we spent $717 billion in welfare programs at the federal level.  Together with state programs, the total cost is close to $1 trillion.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is the only program out of nearly 80 means-tested programs that was reformed in ’96.  It accounts for just 2.4% of the cost of all federal welfare programs.  And even those reforms have been gutted by Obama.
  • “Since the beginning of the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s, government has spent $19.8 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars) on means-tested welfare. By comparison, the combined cost of all the wars in American history — from the Revolutionary War through the current war in Afghanistan — has been $6.98 trillion (in 2011 dollars). The War on Poverty has thus cost three times as much as all of our real wars combined.”
  • What have we gotten for all of this?  According the U.S. Census Bureau, some 46 million Americans, including 16 million children, were “poor” in 2010.  In 1966, the share of the population living below the poverty (self-sufficiency) threshold was 14.7%; by 2011, it had actually risen — to 15.0%.
  • Food-stamp spending has exploded in recent years, from $19.8 billion in 2000 to $84.6 billion in 2011.
  • More than 100 million people, or a third of the U.S. population, received aid from at least one means-tested program (not including Social Security and Medicare).
  • More than a third of single-parent families with children are poor, compared to only 7% of families with married parents. Overall, the children of married parents are 82% less likely to be poor than are the children of single mothers.

Oh, and one more point: none of this factors in the projected cost and dependency level of Obamacare.

It is absolutely stupefying that so many libertarians have no problem with granting citizenship to so many illegals who would be eligible for transfer programs.  To ignore this as a fiscal issue is to ignore reality.  In 2007, Robert Rector estimated that the McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill would cost roughly $2.6 trillion.  Remember that was before the gutting of welfare reform and the massive eligibility expansions under Obama.

During his charm offensive on talk radio, Rubio assured conservatives that under his plan the amnestied immigrants would not be eligible for welfare (except for Obamacare, a provision he says is concerning).  However, that is only during the probationary period.  All of them would then be eligible for a green card and citizenship (if they pay a fine and buy an English textbook, as if the executive will even enforce that), at which point they could receive welfare.

This is also something we need to keep in mind regarding any proposal to grant them a permanent legal resident status without any path to citizenship.  I’m open to suggestions, but it’s hard to imagine how we could legally and politically firewall welfare benefits from such a large group that is granted permanent residence.  Temporary migrant worker visas are one thing, but an entire constituency of PLRs with a massive legal advocacy arm is quite another.

A number of libertarians have suggested that, at its core, this is a welfare problem, not an immigration problem.  There is a lot of truth to that assertion.  However, we must remember that the robust welfare state is the law of the land, and the courts have been very liberal in spreading the benefits around to the broad population.  Amnesty and citizenship for illegals is not the law of the land.  We have to analyze any immigration proposal through the reality of the current welfare state.  No fiscal conservative can support such a plan before we enact wholesale welfare reform.


In a sane world we would immediately enact the enforcement measures and reforms to the legal immigration system, such as abolishing the diversity visa lottery.  But Washington is not sane.  And they believe that such commonsense reforms cannot be enacted until there are 12 million new welfare recipients and Democrat voters.


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