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Living Without a Net: Low-Income Hispanic Families’ Public Assistance Access

This is the second in a series of blog posts and other efforts by the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families to dig deeper into how Latino families experience poverty and earn income, and the implications that these findings have for programs and policy. The series, Latinos Interrupted: How Income and Poverty Impact Hispanic Families’ Economic Mobility, launched December 8, 2015 with the release of three briefs on poverty and income among Hispanic families.

Unaware or Uninformed: Barriers to Public Assistance

Public assistance programs like TANF and SNAP (the official acronym for “food stamps”) are designed to support families during economic hardship and, as such, help families achieve or regain self-sufficiency. But being poor or low-income doesn’t mean you’ll receive this assistance, even if you might be eligible. In fact, it doesn’t even mean you’ll apply. Since public assistance can be a stabilizing form of income for families, not accessing these supports can lead to greater income instability for households.

A recent research brief, part of our series examining the economic conditions of low-income Latino households and families, explores why lower-income (i.e., in the lowest three of five income brackets, including low-income and those nearest to low-income) Hispanic parents report not applying for public assistance programs. Many said they simply didn’t need assistance, but this was closely followed by a reported lack of information or confusion—that they didn’t know they could apply or that aid might be available to them.

The Conflicting Position of Foreign-Born Hispanics

Hispanic, white, and black parents reported similar reasons for not seeking out public assistance with one notable difference: Hispanic parents were much more likely to report not applying because of perceived ineligibility related to immigration status. In the study’s sample, however, most of the immigrant parents reported naturalized citizenship or legal permanent resident status and having been  in the U.S. for well over five years—a standard federal residence threshold for program eligibility. Naturalized citizens face no eligibility restrictions different than U.S.-born citizens, and after five years legal permanent residents’ eligibility should not be affected by immigration status alone.

This suggests that either immigrant parents are misinformed about the role immigration status plays in their program eligibility, or have concerns or fears about their family’s immigration circumstances (an undocumented relative, for example) that cause them to avoid seeking out aid. For some, both of these may be in play.

How Do We Bridge the Gap?

Our recent research illustrates a gap between information about programs and the populations who may need them. Policymakers and program providers may benefit from the use of culturally competent ways to reach specific groups.

Meeting Hispanic Families Where They Are

In order to reach these families and support their ongoing employment, research shows promising outreach initiatives that aim to reach people “where they are” rather than only in welfare offices. Alternative locations include employment sites, workforce development programs, community centers, schools, health centers, and child care centers. For example, some assistance programs, such as TANF, focus on getting recipients working, yet may require lengthy interviews and in-person visits to welfare offices during work hours. And although low-income Hispanic families, and especially immigrant families, are more likely than other groups to have a working adult in the household, they are also more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have low-wage jobs with unpredictable and less-flexible work schedules, making it difficult to take time off or change shifts for appointments.

The concept of meeting families where they are may be particularly important for parents as, in addition to work commitments, having to travel to welfare offices for lengthy screenings may also cause child care conflicts.

Reaching Families Where They Feel Safe

Our new study’s findings suggest that efforts described above could be especially beneficial for Hispanic immigrant families, who may be wary of contact with government offices even if they are eligible for assistance. In addition to language barriers, for example, research has even identified misperceptions about receipt, such as the requirement of paying back the government, or that receiving aid will affect one’s or family members’ chances of gaining citizenship.

Public assistance programs can help low-income Hispanic families in financial hardship in ways that can ultimately improve their chances for economic mobility, but this is only true to the extent that families know about programs and how to apply. It is critical that outreach efforts are culturally competent, reach families where they are, connect with them in ways they feel safe, and address immigration-specific concerns. In doing so, we can close information gaps among this population.

By Marta Alvira-Hammond, a senior research analyst at Child Trends and a former research fellow for the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families. She is also a Ph.D. student focusing on demography in the Department of Sociology at Bowling Green State University. Her research focuses on immigrant and Hispanic families and family formation, self-sufficiency and the social safety net, and health and well-being.

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