Research Article: Restrictive state laws aimed at immigrants: Effects on enrollment in the food stamp program by U.S. citizen children in immigrant families

Date Published: May 1, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Sylvia E. Twersky, Nguyen Viet Cuong.


This paper examines whether a chilling effect of restrictive state laws aimed at immigrants creates a barrier to enrollment in the food stamp program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) for U.S. citizen children in low-income immigrant families. This analysis looks at 20 states in the continental United States from 2000 to 2008 that were either at or above the U.S. average for percentage of foreign-born population, or states that ranked in the top 10 percent in terms of change in foreign-born population for that time period. To examine this issue, a multivariate, regression-based difference-in-differences (DD) analysis was applied. The “treatment” group is immigrant families with a U.S. citizen child that is 130% of the federal poverty level or below in states with restrictive immigrant related legislation and the “control” group is native families meeting the same federal poverty level guidelines as well as low-income immigrant families in states without the restrictive legislation. The research findings show that there does not appear to be a chilling effect associated with restrictive state laws on participation in the food stamp program. Food insecurity is an immediate need that may override the impediments to enrollment due to immigration status, causing families to apply despite a negative climate toward immigrants. For policy makers and immigrant advocates it is important to know where chilling effects might not occur in order to work with politicians and federal agencies on crafting sound evidence-based policy. Independent of any chilling effect, the model shows that immigrant families are less likely to enroll in food stamp benefits, consistent with other literature. In addition, independent of the effects of restrictive immigration legislation, both non-citizen and naturalized mothers were less likely to be in a family with food stamp benefits compared to similar native-born mothers. This indicates that all states have a gap in food stamp program enrollment that merits further attention and research.

Partial Text

The Food Stamp (currently called SNAP) program, the largest nutrition assistance program in the U.S., has been shown to address both hunger and food insecurity as well improving general health outcomes for children. The Food Stamp program accomplishes this through both direct provision of food and indirectly, by freeing scarce dollars that can be spent on necessities other than meeting basic food needs. The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 changed the name of the Federal program from Food Stamps to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP as of Oct. 1, 2008. Since during the analysis time frame the program was called the Food Stamp program it will be referred to that way throughout the paper.

The mean value of food stamps is different between immigrant and native families. The average weighted mean for immigrant families is $750 for the year, while for native families it is $1125 for the year. This may be due to the fact that immigrant families have one or more family members who are not eligible for benefits due to their immigration status. However, this could be a driver for the difference in enrollment between immigrant and native families since those eligible for higher benefits tend to participate at higher rates than other eligible individuals [41]. This idea is supported by the fact that having a larger number of children, even holding income as a percent of the federal poverty line constant, significantly increases the likelihood of participating in the food stamp program. Since additional benefits are paid for each eligible family member, it may be that the incentive to participate in the program increases as the benefit dollars increase. In addition, larger family size may reflect greater need for the non-cash support.