University of California at Davis
Updated January 16, 1995
We as a nation are justifiably proud that we have in place a system which provides a ``safety net'' which protects the truly needy in times of financial desperation. As is well known, though, this safety net in some cases becomes a permanent way of life. What is much less well known is that in the last decade or so, a ``new'' class of permanent welfare users has arisen, growing at an alarming rate-elderly immigrants.
As someone who has been immersed in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years, I became interested in usage of public assistance among that group, particularly in the SSI welfare program.
This last point is of central importance. In investigating the problems of explosive growth in SSI usage by immigrants in recent years, it is appropriate to distinguish between immigrant and native-born recipients, because the immigrants were only allowed into the country on the strength of their-and their children's-promises that they would not make use of welfare.
Details, both statistical and anecdotal, are presented in the following sections. In addition, Appendix A contains a number of profiles of Chinese SSI recipients, to concretely illustrate the phenomena treated in earlier sections.
Before continuing, it should be noted first that I am discussing legal immigrants (both the seniors and their adult children),
I am a former statistics professor, with extensive experience with observational studies, and have served as a statistical consultant for the Kaiser Hospital chain, the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, and so on.
I have been immersed in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years: I have done extensive volunteer work in San Francisco's Chinatown; my wife is from Hong Kong; I speak Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), and we are raising our daughter to be fully bilingual in Cantonese and English; many of our close friends are Chinese immigrants; and so on.
Also, though not directly related to the topic here, I believe it is worth mentioning that I have been highly active in organizational efforts supporting minorities my entire adult life, such as Minority Opportunities for Research in Engineering (MORE), the Graduate Forum for Minority Students, and so on. I served for several years as Chair of the UC Davis Affirmative Action Committee, as well as on the UC-systemwide (i.e. statewide) committee of the same name, and continue to serve on the UC Davis College of Engineering Student Affirmative Action Committee.
Data analysis was done on the 1990 Census data (1% and 5% PUMS tapes). Due to the enormous amount of data involved, my study was restricted to California. Except where stated otherwise, the data are for immigrants residing in California who arrived in the U.S. in or after 1980 but before 1987.
The reason for excluding those who arrived during 1987-1990 is that sponsored immigrants are essentially barred from receiving SSI during their first three years in the U.S.;
This trend in time is due to the fact that it has only been in the more recent years that immigrant awareness of welfare services has become so highly refined, and that it is the more recent immigrants who consider welfare to be nonstigmatizing.
These time-trend considerations should be kept foremost in mind in any analysis pertaining to this topic. Statistics of overall immigrant use of welfare, unrestricted by time of entry to the U.S., are not representative of the current situation. (This will be discussed further in a later section.)
Subsequently I investigated the human side, interviewing dozens of people involved in the general process: social workers at Chinese community centers; immigration attorneys; welfare officials; and the immigrant Chinese seniors themselves.
Note that the community centers are for social activities, places in which a senior can drop by for a couple of hours to alleviate boredom; they are not residences. Accordingly, the people I refer to as social workers are the staffers at the community centers; they are not government social workers as one would find in a Department of Social Services.
I conducted the interviews mostly during October and November of 1993. In order to get statistically meaningful results, I paid close attention to both the size and range of my interview sample. Concerning the latter aspect, I conducted interviews at both urban and suburban locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, and did some supplemental interviews in other areas of large concentrations of Chinese immigrants, such as Los Angeles and New York.
It should be stressed that the interviews revealed a wealth of insight which would have been missed if the analysis had been limited only to the Census data. Yet it must be clarified here that the usefulness of the interviews varied with the type of interviewee: The interviews of the immigrants themselves were of course the most useful. Many social workers knew their clients very well on a personal level, and thus could provide excellent insight.
On the other hand, some other social workers, though equally dedicated, were less knowledgeable about the seniors' personal lives, particularly the central point of the socioeconomic status of their children. An interesting example of this arose when I mentioned to one social worker that many of the elderly Chinese SSI recipients have upscale children who are engineers, successful entrepreneurs, and so on. The social worker insisted that this could not be true for her own clients, who she was sure were particularly poor. I suggested that we ask her clients themselves. She was flabbergasted by the clients' answers, which confirmed what I had been telling her. For example, in the very first SSI recipient family she presented to me, the son was an engineer and his wife a computer programmer.
The table below presents the percentages of welfare use by immigrants over the age of 65, both overall and from some of the larger immigrant groups, in 1990.
group % on welfare all immigrants 45% Filipino 39% Iranian 26% Korean 50% Mexican 21% Soviet Union 66% Vietnamese 74% all native-born 9%
As can be seen, 45% of elderly immigrants were on welfare.
For the elderly immigrant Chinese,
As mentioned earlier, welfare usage by senior immigrants has been increasing over the years. This general trend also holds for the Chinese:
year of imm. % on welfare 1980-1987 55% 1975-1979 47% 1970-1974 41% 1965-1969 39%
Indeed, those whom I interviewed-especially the immigrants themselves-felt that the Chinese rate is even higher than 55% today, in 1994, and is continuing to rise.
For example, Bekki Mar of Self Help for the Elderly, a mega organization of Chinese community centers in the Bay Area, has stated that 85% of the people who drop by to participate in Self Help's social activities are on SSI.
The high SSI rate among seniors who immigrated after 1980 has been misinterpreted by some analysts.
But this interpretation is clearly false, as it does not explain the high growth rate in SSI usage in recent years. Nor does it explain the very substantial variation in usage patterns among immigrants of various nationalities, e.g. 55% for the Chinese seniors versus 21% of the Mexican seniors.
To see further that attributing the time trend to lack of Social Security benefits is a misleading oversimplification, look at the following rates of welfare usage, among those who were 55 or older when they immigrated:
year imm., 55+ % on welfare, general 1980-1987 45% 1965-1969 33%
year imm., 55+ % on welfare, Chinese 1980-1987 55% 1965-1969 43%
In other words, even when we hold constant the lack of opportunity for Social Security, we still find the same upward trend in time.
Thus the increase in popularity of SSI over time is not simply due to lack of Social Security. Instead, as mentioned earlier, it is due to the growing awareness of SSI, and to the fact that SSI has gradually become to be regarded by the seniors as nonstigmatic (which was not the case earlier), and indeed has become a ``magnet'' which attracts many of them. This will be discussed further in later sections.
Another common error in analyses of immigrant welfare use is that immigrants will avoid using welfare, as welfare use might compromise their right to sponsor further family members for immigration.
Except where stated otherwise, my use of the term welfare throughout this document refers to cash payments. Yet cash payments comprise only part of an even larger problem. The seniors often view the cash as part of a comprehensive package of benefits:
Of key importance here is the problem of subsidized housing. (Here I am using the term subsidized housing to include not only direct subsidies (e.g. ``Section 8'') but also other arrangements, such as public housing and also below-market-rate, means-tested housing provided by quasi-governmental nonprofit agencies.) The reason this type of welfare is so important is that I believe that the problems in this regard are virtually unknown among those in the media and possibly even in the federal government.
Though the general public image of subsidized housing is that of tenants coming from the native-born underclass, a very significant number of recipients of such subsidies consists of immigrants, especially elderly immigrants from upper-income families. Unfortunately, the Census data do not provide information on housing subsidies, but the large extent of immigrant use can be seen in various other manners. Rosemarie Fan, social services manager with the Oakland Chinese Community Council (Oakland, California), points out for example that
Within five or 10 blocks from here [Fan's office in Chinatown], you have lots of subsidized senior housing available, with long waiting lists. [The demand is so strong that for some buildings] the wait is more than five years.
A studio apartment in a subsidized building in the Bay Area will typically run from $200 to $300 per month, far lower than market rates, easily allowing the typical senior a substantial degree of discretionary income from his SSI check after paying for rent and food, especially when the other subsidies and benefits are taken into account. (Of course, for those senior SSI recipients who live with their children, most of their SSI check becomes discretionary income.)
The Census data show that in 1990 approximately 117,000 foreign-born elderly were on public assistance in California, receiving cash welfare payments totaling $537 million. Note that this figure does not include non-cash forms of welfare, notably Medi-Cal and subsidized housing.
SSI is a federal program. Most states, including California, add a supplement to it.
Some immigrant advocacy groups feel that the fact that the seniors' children are paying taxes justifies the seniors' use of SSI. Indeed, I was astonished when a number of the Chinese recipients I interviewed made statements like, ``My daughter pays a lot in taxes, so I want something in return.''
Some analysts, such as Michael Fix and Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute, find that taxes paid by immigrants exceed welfare received by them, thus implying a net gain. Others, such as Donald Huddle of Rice University, have claimed a net loss, after accounting for job displacement caused by immigrants.
There is a large literature on this point, some examples of which are:
Ms. Foo's remarks may be put into sharper focus by a point made by Po Wong, director of the Chinese Newcomers Service Center in San Francisco (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, July 7, 1993): ``The community is not ready even for the influx of legal immigrants looking for housing, looking for work, looking for other social services, health services.'' He added that of the 11,000 new arrivals who tried to find work through his agency, only 2% were successfully placed.
The fact that Chinese immigrants are entering the U.S. faster than Chinese communities can absorb them economically is a recurring theme in Chinatown No More, by Hsiang-Shui Chen, Cornell University Press, 1992. Chen provides a number of case studies, showing how the influx of newcomers reduces employment opportunity for the natives and earlier-arriving immigrants, as well as resulting in reduced market shares for existing entrepreneurs.
One must also account for the fact that immigrants, through entrepreneurship and consumerism, create some number of jobs for native-borns. However, this number is virtually impossible to estimate. In the case of entrepreneurship, the picture is clouded by the fact that immigrant entrepreneurs tend to hire other immigrants, not natives. Similarly, immigrant consumers, to a significant extent, tend to patronize immigrant-owned businesses. Thus it is, in the end, unknown as to whether the net effect of immigration on jobs for natives (or, for that matter, for earlier-arriving immigrants) is positive or negative.
Yet the basic taxes-paid-versus-welfare-received comparison itself is misleading, as it ignores the non-welfare services immigrants receive. The correct comparison is that of immigrants to native-borns: All sides agree that on a per-capita basis, immigrants are paying less in taxes than the native-borns, yet are receiving more in welfare services than are the native-borns.
For example, as we pointed out earlier, there has been a sharp upward time trend in immigrant welfare usage. Yet many published analyses (or summaries of analyses) on such usage fail to state the time period being used. Many analyses also fail to state whether they have excluded refugees from the figures.
In addition, many analyses of immigrants exclude the elderly, which as we have seen here, are major users of welfare. Most analyses also exclude U.S.-born minor children of immigrants. Those children are U.S. citizens, not immigrants, but by excluding such children, immigrant welfare use statistics are distorted, since those statistics ignore the fact that the immigrant parents obtain welfare via their citizen children.
For these reasons, it is more realistic to use a household basis for analysis. The 1990 Census data show that about 12% of immigrant-headed households in California contain at least one person on welfare, versus about 9% of the native-headed households. In other words, an immigrant-headed household is 33% more likely than a native-headed household to receive some welfare money. See ``Immigrants in California: Finding from the 1990 Census,'' Hans Johnson, California Research Bureau, 1993.
In any case, most governments at the federal, state and local levels are in quite precarious financial condition, and many of the truly needy are not receiving sufficient aid. Thus welfare policy reform with regard to immigrants-who have pledged not to go on welfare-is appropriate.
It was essentially universal consensus among all the Chinese social workers and the seniors themselves that-unlike the situation before, say, 1970 or 1975-the Chinese seniors who have immigrated in recent years do not consider taking welfare to be a stigma. On the contrary, they view welfare as a normal benefit of immigration, whose use is actually encouraged, like a library card. The seniors are unaware of the fact that welfare is intended only as a safety net.
Rosemary Fan explained,
The way they look at it is, ``One can apply for SSI after three years [after arriving in the U.S.] so why don't I take advantage of it? Hey, why not, it's there.''
She then made an analogy to the seniors standing in line to avail themselves of free promotional items distributed by vendors at the annual Chinatown Street Fair.
Indeed, many of the Chinese seniors I interviewed praised the U.S. for being so generous in providing this ``free money.'' One senior pointed out that a common attitude among the seniors about SSI was mh hou sit dai-Cantonese for ``don't miss this great opportunity.'' Another senior described the attitude as ``Everyone else is getting this money, so why shouldn't I?'' One of the Chinese social workers simply laughed when I asked if taking SSI was stigmatic to her clients.
In short, the degree of usage of SSI among Chinese has become so high that SSI now appears to have essentially full social acceptance. And as one senior from Taiwan pointed out, the term the Chinese seniors use for welfare has accordingly been euphemized, changing from the old jiu ji jin-``economic rescue funds''-to fu li jin, roughly ``fringe benefits.''
Chinese political activists have run aggressive campaigns to promote use of SSI by the seniors. By giving SSI their ``blessing,'' they probably played a major role in fostering the ``library card'' perception of SSI, as a normal benefit of immigration. (The role of the activists is discussed further in Appendix B.)
The vast majority of the immigrant Chinese senior welfare recipients do not need the money. This is true by definition, because of the manner in which the immigration process is set up: The seniors are typically sponsored for immigration by their adult children, who themselves immigrated earlier. In order for the petition for immigration to be approved, the children must demonstrate to the INS that they have the financial resources to support their parents.
This is a central issue in the debate. Consider, for example the following statement made in the Clinton Report Card compiled by the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) (July 1994):
[President Clinton's welfare reform proposal] would make legal non-citizens ineligible for a minimum five-year period for SSI...In addition, for those immigrants whose sponsors have above the median U.S. family income, regardless of number of family members, these immigrants will not be eligible for [welfare] benefits until they become citizens. These provisions undermine a fundamental aspect of U.S. immigration policy-that of family reunification-by burdening the sponsors of immigrants who are denied the benefits. These provisions would also disparately impact the Asian Pacific American community, as over 40% of immigrants from Asia come to the U.S. through family reunification visas.
The claim of ``burdening'' here starkly ignores the fact that the sponsors must certify that they do have the financial resources to support their parents.
Indeed, because of the above-mentioned financial screening by the INS, those who successfully apply to bring their parents here tend to be of above-average incomes. The 1990 Census data show that 50% of households in which the senior immigrants recipients lived with their adult children had income over $50,000, and 11% were over $100,000, this compared to the 1990 median household income in California of $33,000. Approximately 75% of the households had above-median income.
Though this may at first seem surprising, it again is a very natural consequence of the fact that the children must pass the INS' financial screening before their parents are allowed to immigrate.
As explained earlier, refugees are exempt from this screening. The income figures here do not distinguish between regular immigrants and refugees. Figures restricted to regular immigrants would be even higher than those shown above. However, it worth noting that even refugee families of elderly welfare recipients can have high incomes, with 34% being over $50,000 and 5% over $100,000.
As seen above, some of the Chinese political activists have objected to analyses based on household income, since many Chinese households are somewhat larger than average. Their point is that it takes a larger income to support a larger family.
Indeed, many of the recipients' children are upscale professionals, successful entrepeneurs and so on. Mei Young, an immigration paralegal aide, noted that it is common for a Chinese immigrant husband/wife couple, both Silicon Valley engineers with combined income well over $100,000, to put their parents on welfare. May Yue, director of the senior citizen center at the Chinese Alliance Church in San Jose in the Silicon Valley, made a similar comment about the well-to-do nature of the welfare recipients' families, as did Edna Law, program coordinator at the Self Help for the Elderly Chinese community center in Palo Alto-one of the wealthiest cities in the Bay Area. One senior I interviewed, who effusively praised the U.S. for its generosity in providing him with welfare money, has a son who is a successful physician, a specialist in ob-gyn.
The upscale nature of the recipients' children can also be observed, ironically, in the (relative) failure of the Renaissance Plaza, a commercial condominium project in Oakland's Chinatown. Many Chinese seniors' children had originally signed up to purchase condos for their parents in 1990-but then backed out when subsidized housing was opened in various Chinatown locations. As one Chinatown businessperson put it, ``Who wants to pay $130,000 for a one-bedroom when you can [rent] one for almost nothing a block or two away?''
The general upscale nature of the recipients' children is illustrated further in the sample recipient profiles in Appendix A.
However, it should be noted again that even in cases of families of more modest means, the son or daughter has certified his/her financial ability to support the senior-i.e. they have certified that the senior does not need welfare.
Moreover, a senior will typically have several sons and daughters in the U.S., whose total income-and thus their collective ability to support the senior-is of course much higher than even the high figures cited above.
Thus, the seniors do not fit the picture of financial desperation which we normally associate with those on public assistance. And though they often live in small, simple apartments, many senior welfare recipients enjoy international vacations. Edna Law said that her seniors will typically make a trip home to Asia once a year, especially if they still have children there. Some seniors I interviewed in San Francisco and Oakland had even enjoyed Caribbean cruises, trips to Europe, and so on.
This was illustrated in an ironic manner in an SSI informational meeting in San Francisco's Chinatown on May 20, 1994, held by the Self Help for the Elderly chain of Chinese senior centers and by other political activists. The meeting drew an overflow crowd of elderly SSI recipients. The activists lambasted SSI reform proposals, calling them immigrant-bashing attacks on the needy. Yet to the activists' chagrin, the most common queries from the ``needy'' audience involved recipients' concerns that their international vacations might harm their eligibility for welfare!
This is a far cry from welfare kids in South Central Los Angeles who have never even seen the ocean, less than 10 miles away.
In Chinese tradition, adult children respect their elderly parents, support them financially, and have the parents live with them. In fact, such tradition has served as the centerpiece of immigration lobbying efforts made by Chinese advocacy groups, when the activists have opposed Congressional proposals to reduce the scope of family-based immigration policies.
When I asked why so many Bay Area seniors were living apart from their children, counter to Chinese tradition, the automatic answer given by many social workers and immigrants was that the seniors, most of whom speak no English, find life boring in the suburban areas where their children tend to live. Thus, this line of reasoning goes, the parents move to Chinatown, a move which is accompanied by applying for SSI, subsidized housing, and so on. But this explanation is really a rationalization. The seniors offering this explanation conceded, for example, that most of them could live with their children and yet still take public transit into Chinatown for socializing, shopping and so on. Moreover, this ``boring suburbs'' rationale completely fails for the senior welfare recipients in the Silicon Valley, since many continue to live in the suburbs after moving out of their children's homes.
Instead, in many cases the children push their parents out of the house. Given the Chinese tradition of close family ties, it may surprise some that a central motivation in many such cases is interpersonal conflict. As one senior explained, ``Daughters-in-law don't want to live with their mothers-in-law.'' Problems of this sort were cited by nearly all of the social workers and immigrant seniors. Welfare, by enabling the seniors to live separately at no cost to the children, provides an all too easy alternative to working out family differences.
When the children ask the parents to leave, the seniors are often emotionally traumatized by the process. May Yue cited as typical a recent case, in which a couple she was helping were shocked because ``the son wanted them to move out. They couldn't accept that. They felt really hurt.'' Yue added that the son had also been forcing the parents to pay rent while they had been living in the son's home, adding to their hurt.
Even the immigration lawyers, belying their hard-bitten reputation, expressed the same concern that welfare was helping to erode Chinese family tradition. One of them, Robert Chan, described a recent incident in which a woman with well-to-do sons was living alone, and had seriously injured herself in a fall. Chan said ``I cannot comprehend how one could have one's 75-year-old mother live alone.''
And in spite of the well-appreciated activities offered in the senior centers, loneliness is a common problem. One immigrant pointed out that the seniors still return home to an empty apartment after spending a couple of hours at the community center, and that the center is open only four days per week. I was touched when a client at one of the senior centers even tried to enlist my help in convincing her children to let her move back in with them.
Even if the children do not ask the parents to live separately, in many cases this is largely because the children use their parents as free, in-house baby sitters for the grandchildren. Indeed, this is often a primary reason why the children sponsored the parents to immigrate in the first place.
Though knowledge of SSI is nearly universal among Chinese seniors, some know more than others. Some, for instance, are unaware of the fact that one can receive SSI but still live with one's children. In this case, welfare provides a different motivation for moving out. As Angela Chu, a housing specialist in San Francisco's Chinatown put it, some seniors move out of their children's homes because they mistakenly think that ``otherwise they can't get welfare.''
As the parents go on the welfare rolls, the children obviously gain financially. As Edna Law noted, the children feel that ``It's nice that they don't have to support their parents.'' Others used blunter terms to describe this, with ``greedy'' being a popular choice.
But what is less obvious is that the children may actually profit from the senior's SSI funds, in those cases in which the senior does live with the children. In such settings, most of the senior's SSI check will become discretionary income, and much of the check will then become cash profit for the children. Typically, for example, the children will have their parents use their SSI money to pay the children rent, which the children would not have charged otherwise.
One immigrant college student noted other ways in which the children can profit from their parents' SSI checks:
My grandparents take SSI simply because it's available...They live with my uncle...That [his grandparents' SSI money] is where my parents got the down payment for the house they bought...And my grandparents want to leave the [accumulated SSI] money to us when they pass on.
A number of others interviewed, including some real estate agents, made similar comments to me. Also, in a letter to the editor to Asian Week (October 21, 1994), a reader noted that on a recent visit to a Social Security office, ``a woman from India who was arguing with the Social Security workers wanted her mother's SSI increased by $72 a month. She needed the increase because her house mortgage is $3,000 a month!''
The Census data show that approximately 42% of the immigrant senior welfare recipients live in their children's households, and another 10% live with other family members. As pointed out by Rosemarie Fan, the marginal cost of providing food for the senior is minimal in such cases. In other words, not only are the recipients' family sponsors reneging on support pledges, but also in about half the cases, there is not even any valid use for the funds received.
Though my interviews were confined mainly to California, problems such as those described above are nationwide phenomena among Chinese and other Asian immigrants. Hong Shing Lee, director of the City Hall Senior Center in New York's Chinatown, described for me a similar situation, as did Ruth Chu of the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles. An article in the Boston Globe on January 9, 1994 briefly alluded to similar problems in Boston's Chinese community, such as children evicting their parents from the children's homes.
Similar problems in Canada were described in Maclean's, August 2, 1993:
[In Canada] elderly reunited parents routinely apply for, and obtain, welfare payments paid for by the rest of us through taxes. That is because sponsorship of relatives no longer means an iron-clad requirement to support relatives, no matter what. In most provinces, the sponsoring relatives merely have to promise that they can no longer afford to support their parents, or whomever. So almost immediately upon arrival, mom and dad can get [welfare] without ever having paid a dime of income taxes and without having to prove definitively that they really need the support payments. To boot, some immigrants have their sponsored parents babysit their children and write the ``expense'' off their income for tax purposes as a day care cost.
Two lawyers with a largely Asian practice in New York even brought up such issues in their book, How to Get a Green Card (Lewis and Madlansacay, Nolo Press, 1993). In their chapter, ``Your Parents as Immigrants,'' they admonish the children against abusing their parents:
In Defense of the Elderly: ...It is cruel to relegate your parents to be merely babysitters for your young children...Do not abuse [them] by taking advantage of their presence in your home to do the work you should be doing...do not discard your own mother and father in thought and deed...
Perhaps this breakdown of the traditional Chinese extended family structure would occur anyway. But the availability of welfare is certainly contributing to the process. This is ironically reminiscent of the 1965 Moynihan view of the harmful effect of welfare on family structure, except that in this case it involves the families of upscale Chinese professionals, rather than the families of poor African-Americans cited by Moynihan.
Even in those cases in which the children are well-intentioned and are willing to financially support their parents, the system again gives incentives for them to put their parents on SSI. One of the immigrants described the situation with her elderly mother:
In the beginning, we lived in the Midwest [where very few Chinese people live], so we didn't know about SSI. Our mother had savings, and we gave her money every month, so that her savings account never decreased...[But then we were advised] that our mother should spend down her money until she is qualified for SSI, so we don't give her money anymore...I guess it's the system.
Coupled with the high rate of welfare use among senior Chinese immigrants is a remarkably high degree of awareness of welfare policies and procedures. Some of the information sources are:
The degree of awareness of welfare among immigrant Chinese seniors is striking. Edna Law, whose job includes helping seniors apply for welfare, marveled, ``Sometimes I'm amazed-the seniors know more than I do!'' May Yue made a similar comment, as did Rosemarie Fan, who noted that many recent immigrants ``are very knowledgeable about how the system works.''
One of the seniors said, ``If you live here in the Bay Area [and thus are exposed to the Chinese grapevine], you will certainly know about SSI.''
One Chinese immigrant I talked to in San Francisco not only had an impressive knowledge of American immigration laws, but also knew that in Canada the sponsoring son or daughter is financially responsible for the parents for 10 years, compared to the American three-year limit.
Edna Law remarked that the seniors from Taiwan are especially knowledgeable about welfare, ``very sophisticated...They get all the benefits they can.'' It is thus not surprising that the World Journal, the Chinese-language newspaper which is the most popular daily among immigrants from Taiwan, chose to establish a regular ``Dear Abby''-style advice column on immigration-related matters, with SSI dominating the list of questions asked. For example, in the February 27, 1994 issue, of the eight questions listed, seven concerned SSI.
Here are some recent samples from the advice column:
A California reader writes, ``Until recently my wife lived with our daughter, and I lived separately from them. My wife's and my SSI checks totaled $1,110 per month. We are now living together again. Will our check have to be reduced?''
A reader from Chicago asks, ``I came to the U.S. in 1989 on a tourist visa to see my children. I overstayed my visa, and have been here since then, being supported by my children. I will soon receive my green card. As I have already been in the U.S. longer than the three-year period, can I immediately apply for SSI and Medicaid?''
A California reader asks, ``I currently receive $520 per month SSI. I live with my daughter, and I pay her $300 per month in rent. I would like to move to HUD-subsidized housing, since HUD policy is that one pays only 1/3 of one's monthly income for rent. Please tell me how to apply.''
A reader from Florida sends these queries: ``My mother is an SSI recipient. She wishes to return home to Asia for a year and a half. Will her SSI benefits automatically be canceled? And when she returns, will she have to re-apply for SSI from scratch?''
A senior from Taiwan remarked that many elderly Taiwanese ``give their money to their children, put title in the children's names, etc., so that they can qualify [for SSI and also subsidized housing],'' taking advantage of the fact, widely known among the Taiwanese, that one can legally circumvent the $2,000 limit on bank accounts for SSI eligibility by transferring one's assets to one's children.
One question which arises prominently in debate on immigration is whether immigrants come to the U.S. with the advance goal of availing themselves of these services.
To address this question, it is important to recall the point mentioned before concerning the time trend in SSI usage, with usage increasing sharply in recent years. Earlier immigrants knew little about welfare benefits at the time they applied for immigration. But in recent years welfare has become a ``magnet'' which attracts many of them to come to the U.S.
Many Chinese political activists claim that the seniors immigrate to the U.S. to rejoin their children who immigrated earlier, not to get welfare. Yet many of the senior Chinese SSI recipients live hundreds or thousands of miles from their children whom they have supposedly ``rejoined.''
For example, consider one group of about a dozen recipients whom I interviewed in a HUD building in Sacramento, California. All the people in the group were from Taiwan, as were most of the other residents of the building. Among those dozen people, I found seniors whose children lived far from Sacramento: Los Angeles, Houston, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Boston and Minnesota. They see their children only once a year or so.
Thus, even though they are coming to the U.S. under the auspices of family-reunification provisions of immigration law, clearly the attraction for immigration in many cases is welfare, not family ties.
See for example the analysis given by Louisiana State University professor Min Zhou in Chinatown, Temple University Press, 1992, pp.50-54. Dr. Zhou's point is that people who want to immigrate to the U.S. go about finding some route to achieving that goal, and that family reunification happens to be such a route. One person she interviewed, for instance, says ``People are very smart, they know how to get here quickly through the family connections.'' Zhou notes that ``Immigration opportunities for prospective immigrants would be close to zero without family or kinship connections.'' In other words, though the philosophy of immigration law is that one immigrates in order to rejoin one's family members, many are doing the opposite-rejoining their family members in order to immigrate.
Similar comments along the same lines are made by Bill Hing, a Stanford University law professor and nationallly prominent immigrant-rights advocate, in Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration, 1850-1990, pp.106-107 (Stanford University Press, 1993). Professor Hing writes that ``Japanese-Americans were in an excellent position to petition for relatives [to immigrate] under the 1965 [immigration law] amendment's kinship provisions, yet they did not take advantage of this opportunity as other Asian American groups did.'' He then cites Japan's economic success, and concludes ``For many in Japan, therefore, economic opportunity is not a particularly powerful reason for emigrating.'' As a result, the family-based immigration rate to the U.S. among Japanese has been dramatically lower than the rates among Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans and East Indians. So, economics, not a desire to rejoin a separated family member, is key in one's decision to emigrate. (Hing also points to Japan's political stability, relative to other Asian nations, as another nonfamily factor in the decision.)
These studies, in discussing economics rather than as the primary motivation of many of those who partake of family-reunification categories, are referring to working-age immigrants. Yet the patterns we see in this report for many elderly immigrants center around an economic goal as well. In their case, the economic goal takes on the form of receiving welfare benefits.
I think it is significant that even a prominent Chinese-American entrepeneur has recently spoken out on the issue. Dr. Lester Lee, a Silicon Valley CEO, achieved prominence among Asian-Americans as the first Chinese-American ever appointed to the University of California Board of Regents. In his letter to the editor in the Asian-American newspaper Asian Week (December 16, 1994), Dr. Lee said, ``Our welfare system is really a magnet which lures [Chinese] people into this practice.''
The seniors who immigrate these days do indeed tend to know about welfare services-and make plans to use them later on-at the time they apply to immigrate to the U.S. This is largely due to word of mouth, which among Chinese forms an oral ``information superhighway,'' with busy ``offramps'' in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. Hong Shing Lee, the social service director in New York's Chinatown mentioned earlier, told me for example that among many new immigrants who participate in his community center, their first order of business after arriving in the U.S. is to ask him for further details about welfare benefits which they had heard about back home. Ruth Chu of the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles stated that organizations in Asia, such as the nonprofit International Social Service in Hong Kong, give detailed advice about SSI to those who are planning to emigrate to the U.S.
Knowledge levels are similarly high on the children's end. The consensus among the social workers and immigrants is that in recent years, the seniors' children, before completing the forms in which they petition the INS for their parents' immigration, typically consult with immigration lawyers, social workers and friends concerning welfare services-to make sure that they (the children) will not have to personally pay for their parents' food, clothing, housing, medical expenses, and so on.
Another way in which it can be seen that the seniors, at the time they immigrate, have plans to go on welfare (or their children have such plans for them) is that the Chinese SSI recipients typically go on welfare immediately after the three-year ineligibility period.
Many analyses concerning immigrant use of welfare fail to address the central issue which distinguishes immigrant users from the native-borns: The immigrants are not supposed to be on welfare in the first place.
The INS requires both the applicants and the sponsors to sign pledges that the applicant will avoid public assistance. Yet, the children who sponsor their parents (and of course the parents themselves) are routinely reneging on their pledges.
INS Commissioner Doris Meissner described the problem recently as follows:
Sponsorship is an expression of intent, and it is one where the government assumes as a good-faith matter that if a family attests to its willingness to sponsor...then it will be carried out. This area of elderly immigrants is one where it is not working so well.
Consider a typical scenario in which a hypothetical Ms.Wong, having immigrated earlier, wishes to have her father, Mr.Wong, immigrate as well. One of the forms Ms.Wong will fill out, Affidavit of Support I-134, will request her to demonstrate that she has the financial resources to support her father. In addition to asking Ms.Wong to list her financial assets, form I-134 specifically asks her to affirm ``that this affidavit is made by me for the purpose of assuring the United States Government that [Mr.Wong] will not become a public charge in the United States.''
Form I-134 weakens its own case a bit, by stating that the form is binding on Ms.Wong only for the ``deeming period,'' i.e. Mr.Wong's first three years in the U.S.
Moreover, various forms (e.g. OF-230, I-485) will ask Mr.Wong himself to assure the INS that he will not become a public charge in the U.S.; the forms place no time restriction on this pledge.
Yet as mentioned in a previous section, if Ms.Wong is typical, at the same time she is filling out the affidavit I-134, assuring the INS that Mr.Wong will not become a public charge, she is already planning precisely the opposite, i.e. planning that he will go on SSI after the deeming period ends. She is then on shaky legal grounds at best, and is possibly even guilty of perjury. Similarly, if Mr.Wong has such early plans, he is also is skirting the limits of the law.
In other words, large numbers of senior Chinese immigrants and their children are indeed flouting immigration law. Whether they are doing this intentionally or simply signing forms without reading them (the latter is probably common) is another issue. But the bottom line is that these immigrant SSI recipients are violating pledges they made about SSI use, and they should not be on the SSI rolls.
It was the consensus of the Chinese social workers whom I interviewed that policy regarding immigrant use of SSI is indeed badly in need of reform. Cindy Yee, a social worker with the Oakland Chinese Community Council, summed it up: ``The system is not well put together...not strict enough to make the sponsors responsible.''
Here are some possible remedies:
In our hypothetical example above with Ms.Wong and Mr.Wong, the INS forms should add questions asking just how Mr.Wong intends to support himself after the three-year (temporarily five-year) deeming period ends. Since Mr.Wong is past employment age, Ms.Wong would probably be forced to say that she would support Mr.Wong permanently.
This would force Ms. Wong to pro-actively address the question of Mr. Wong's post-deeming period means of support, and would clarify for Ms. Wong that the government does not welcome Mr. Wong to use SSI, Medicaid, subsidized housing and so on after the deeming period ends. This would dispel the ``library card'' misconception which is common among Chinese immigrants.
Moreover, the form could give Ms.Wong the option of formally waiving the limitation of the deeming period, so that her pledge would become enforceable. The INS would have a legal right to write its forms this way, as it is legally required to exclude anyone from immigration who is likely to become a public charge. In fact, the INS is mandated to deny Ms.Wong's petition for her father's immigration if she did not make such a pledge.
This would definitely help reduce SSI usage, in that it would be tantamount to lengthening the deeming period, in the following sense. With SSI as an incentive, most Chinese seniors who would otherwise not opt for citizenship would decide to become naturalized after all. One can apply for naturalization after five years in the U.S., and processing typically takes about a year after that. So, in the Chinese case, the net effect of such legislation would be to have a deeming period of approximately five years or so. Obviously the length of the deeming period is key, so this legislation would bring immediate, substantial savings which would continue in the long term as well, and definitely should be enacted.
As mentioned earlier, in Canada the hypothetical Ms.Wong would have to support Mr.Wong for 10 years, as opposed to our three (temporarily five) years. Given that Canada's immigration policies are in general much more liberal than ours, it would seem that a 10-year period is certainly not harsh, and indeed longer periods may well be justified.
As the name Supplemental Security Income implies, SSI was designed to supplement Social Security benefits, for those who were in an impoverished state in spite of receiving Social Security. The present usage of SSI by immigrants who have done little or no work in the U.S. is thus not consistent with SSI's intended function.
Social Security for the aged requires work of at least 40 quarters. The same requirement could be imposed on SSI. Such a solution would achieve a much larger savings than would making noncitizens ineligible for SSI, since citizenship can be acquired after five years in the U.S.
This solution, of course, would be much more controversial, and is beyond the scope of this report. Several polls have shown that most Latino-Americans wish to see reduced quotas, but to my knowledge no poll has been conducted among Chinese-Americans.
This solution was recently adopted by the Canadian government. It announced that due to the reneging on pledges by sponsors to support their immigrant family members, the family unification component of the overall Canadian immigration quota would be reduced from 51% to 44%.
A related question is whether reform should be made retroactive. From the investigation here it can be seen that retroactivity would produce the following effects:
Welfare reform is required by the Budget Reform Act of 1990 to be budget-neutral. The expenses for job training and child care in such reform must be offset by reductions elsewhere (or by increased taxes, which are unlikely). In this manner, each welfare dollar which is continued to be paid to parents of well-off immigrant children who are reneging on their pledges to support their parents is a dollar unavailable for helping the underclass out of the welfare cycle. This reverse-Robin Hood effect is unconscionable.
Most of the senior Chinese SSI recipients are decent people who do not realize SSI is intended only as a safety net for the financially desperate. Their children who break support pledges are not so innocent, but the real blame should be placed on the loophole-plagued system itself.
It is imperative that the system be changed.
Each profile below is an individual case, i.e. not a composite. All names of the seniors used are pseudonyms. All are current SSI recipients, except for a few cases in which I have stated that the senior is currently waiting to become eligible for SSI.
This is of course anecdotal data. But I have chosen the profiles to comprise a reasonably representative sampling of the range exhibited in the much larger set of interviews I conducted.
The profiles follow:
Chinese advocacy groups have made major efforts to promote use of SSI by Chinese immigrants. They have campaigned heavily, through the Chinese community centers, Chinese-language television, Chinese newspapers and so on, disseminating information about SSI, and urging the seniors to come in and apply.
As quasi-governmental and sometimes governmental personnel, these activists' endorsement of SSI may have played a role in removing the stigma associated with receiving welfare. Indeed it probably has fostered the ``library card'' perception of SSI, in which the seniors perceive SSI as a normal benefit of immigration, rather than as a safety net for the financially desperate.
The activists also campaigned, successfully, for the building (or conversion) of large-scale subsidized housing in Chinatowns. The combination of SSI and subsidized housing became hugely popular with the seniors, as we have seen.
As a result of building up the demand for such services, large organizations associated with them have arisen. In the Bay Area, a notable example is Self-Help for the Elderly, a mega-chain of Chinese community centers.
Although the community centers do provide invaluable service to the seniors, helping them overcome loneliness and boredom, at the same time there are negative effects which arise naturally as a consequence of such empire-building. In short, these organizations have a vested interest in the status quo on SSI. For example, without SSI, many seniors would move back in with their children, greatly reducing the demand for the subsidized housing for which the organizations campaigned, concurrently losing some of the political clout the organizations have worked so hard to build.
Given this vested interest, it is not surprising that the organizations are now opposing reform of SSI policy regarding immigrants. Led by the afore-mentioned Yvonne Lee of the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans, they have been heavily engaged in lobbying activities in Washington.
I believe it is important to point out that these organizations do not represent Chinese-Americans. Most Chinese-Americans have no connection to such organizations, are quite unaware of the lobbying done by them (indeed have never heard of them), and in many cases would disagree with the positions they take.
In this light, though I have no hard data on this, it is worth mentioning that among mainstream Chinese I have talked to, many consider present policies regarding immigrant use of SSI to be far too lax. One immigrant senior complained, ``I worked here in the U.S. and paid taxes for 30 years, yet recent immigrants come in without having worked a day, and get a welfare check twice as large as my Social Security check. It's really unfair.'' Another immigrant senior, also a nonrecipient, said, ``They don't need this money,'' and added that ``America is very stupid'' for allowing people to take advantage of the system in this way.
One community worker, for example, a Chinese-American woman who had been so positive in tone when I talked to her at work, startled me by calling me at home the next day, angrily saying, ``These people are greedy! They're hurting our country!''
I was recently invited to speak on this topic in a seminar series at the Berkeley Chinese Community Church (June 28, 1994). Many in the Chinese-American audience (mostly American-born) expressed anger and frustration that the welfare system is being abused in this manner.
In addition, after I published an op-ed piece on this topic in the influential Asian-American newspaper Asian Week, two letters to the editor were published, both quite supportive. Here are excerpts:
I wish to congratulate you for your courage to publish Mr. Norman Matloff's expose' of welfare cheating by Chinese immigrants...I am both saddened and ashamed because I know that what he said in his article is true, especially with regard to those from Taiwan. (Richard Low, El Paso, Texas, October 7, 1994.)
Thank you for publishing the article by Norman Matloff...I have been quite aware and angry at this problem for years...I'm glad maybe something will be done, but I won't hold my breath. (Su Lee Tom, Alhambra, California, October 21, 1994.)
- footnote: Some time later, two further letters were published. One is the letter by Lester Lee mentioned earlier, confirming that welfare has become a magnet luring Chinese seniors to the U.S. The other letter was by Andy Chan of San Francisco, also cited earlier.