Denying immigrants access to the safety net would have terrible consequences for us all

Most Americans agree that it’s important to have a social safety net.  Bad luck and hard times can hit any of us, and when that happens there should be something there to keep us from falling into destitution while we work to get back on our feet. That’s what the safety net does – it helps people avoid extreme deprivation and produces long-term benefits, especially for children. But recent moves by the Trump administration could create holes in the safety net, allowing many working families to crash straight through.

The safety net works, but it works best when all those who need it can access it

Our safety net programs work, and their benefits extend beyond the individuals who access them. We are all better off when children can participate in Head Start or receive high-quality child care while their parents work.  We all see health benefits from increased access to immunizations and routine health care. Society and the economy improve when everyone who can work is able to find a decent job because they’ve had access to education and job training

Safety net programs are key part of our society, and it’s in our best interest to make sure that anyone who needs them can access them without fear. But recent proposed changes to immigration policies could mean that immigrant families and their U.S. citizen relatives will no longer be able to access these crucial programs without risking their ability to stay in the United States.

The “public charge” test

For more than 100 years, federal immigration law has contained a “public charge” provision. Someone is considered a public charge if they are likely to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” Anyone seeking a visa to come to the U.S. or anyone already here with a temporary visa who is applying for a Green Card must demonstrate that they, or someone in the United States sponsoring them, can provide for them and their dependents so they won’t be dependent primarily on public programs.

Several factors are considered when determining whether someone is likely to become a public charge. Age, health status, education and job skills, assets, and financial resources are a few. Officials also look at whether or not the person is receiving certain kinds of government help, like cash assistance. But a recent draft proposal from the Trump administration would substantially expand the public charge test to consider virtually all safety programs.

If these changes take effect, most all kinds of assistance could be considered to determine whether you are likely to become a public charge.  Using programs like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), transportation vouchers for people in job training programs, energy assistance programs (LIHEAP), and many educational benefits (like Head Start and Pell Grants) would count against you.

And officials won’t only be looking at you – the individual applying for permanent status. They would now be authorized to consider the history of your sponsor and anyone else in your household.  So an immigrant parent whose U.S. citizen children attend Head Start would be considered to have used public services.  This could mean they will fail the public charge test and their immigration status will be at risk.

Accessing the safety net doesn’t mean you’re dependent on the government

[pullquote]If the federal government expands the public charge definition to include core programs like SNAP and SoonerCare for young families with children, this would effectively be defining more than half of all new mother​s in the state as a public charge.[/pullquote]

Claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit, like more than 1 million Oklahomans, or using a tax subsidy to buy health insurance on the ACA exchange, as over 100,000 Oklahomans did last year, doesn’t mean that you’re dependent on the government. It means that you’re working, but not making enough meet all your family’s needs, as is the case for millions of Americans.

Individuals and families who take use these benefits are still paying taxes, contributing to the economy, and adding to the community where they live.​ The benefits of the safety net are not enough to live on – the safety net provides support to working families, not subsistence. If the federal government expands the public charge definition to include core programs like SNAP and SoonerCare for young families with children, this would effectively be defining more than half of all new mother​s in the state as a public charge.

Expanding our definition of dependence to include programs that support or help working families lift themselves out of poverty is bad policy that will harm millions of people. People in the United States should be able to access help (for themselves and their families) that they qualify for without jeopardizing their place here. It doesn’t benefit anyone if these families go hungry, or don’t seek out health care when they need it, to avoid being labeled as a public charge. It just makes them, and their communities, worse off. American values are about helping people move forward and up – not back down into sickness, hunger, and poverty.

What happens now?

It’s important to remember that right now these proposed changes are still just a proposal.  It’s likely that the administration will formally publish the proposed changes later this summer, and then there will be a period for public comment. Advocates will be active during this comment period, and you can further those efforts by contacting your federal representative and senators to express your concern with the proposed changes. The Constitution gives Congress the power to make immigration policy. They can pass a resolution countering this proposed change to how “public charge” is defined. 


Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

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