Las Vegas Sun

December 20, 2014

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More welfare going to parents here illegally

The number of families with citizen children receiving aid has nearly doubled since ’07

Jose Silva had just obtained an appointment in three weeks to see whether his family would be eligible for monthly welfare benefits.

“Now I just have to not eat until then,” he joked, standing with his wife on the sidewalk outside the state office on Flamingo Road.

Silva has been without a steady job for a year, one of tens of thousands of workers still reeling from the bottom dropping out of the Las Vegas Valley’s construction industry, the region’s second-largest employer after tourism.

If approved for assistance, the Silvas will belong to the fastest-growing category of families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Bearing the confusing government label of “non-qualified non-citizens,” this category refers to families with parents who are not U.S. citizens and children who are.

Since the recession began in late 2007, the average monthly caseload of these families has grown 96 percent, according to state records. About 4,250 of these families of mixed immigration status were on the program’s rolls in September, making it the second-largest category in TANF, after single-parent households.

It is also the only category in the program where parents apply in their children’s name, as opposed to applying in their own. TANF gives monthly checks to the families based on income and the children’s status as citizens and does not require parents to demonstrate that they are in the United States legally.

No one has studied the phenomenon, but Christie D. Batson, an assistant professor of sociology at UNLV who has researched immigrant families, figures the exploding numbers may have at least two causes. Children of immigrants have long been one of the demographic groups getting the least amount of social services, despite showing great need, Batson said. This is because illegal immigrant parents often don’t know about the benefits, or are afraid they could be deported if they seek them.

“But in the past few years there has been a push to better inform these parents, by social service agencies and nonprofits,” Batson said.

So the numbers could be a result of more immigrant families finding out about social service programs, she said.

Also, Batson said, “there has got to be a correlation between the economy and benefits.”

Gary Stagliano, deputy administrator of the state’s Welfare and Supportive Services Division, said many of the families joining the agency’s rolls may have had one or both parents laid off in the services or construction industries.

The Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute estimated the unemployment rate among Hispanics in Nevada at 16.4 percent for this year’s second quarter, the most recent period available. The state’s overall unemployment rate was 11.3 percent at the time. It is now 13.3 percent.

In another reflection of the withering economy, the number of households with two parents seeking TANF has also exploded. Enrollment under that category has increased 69 percent since late 2007.

Stagliano said this increase may show how the loss of one or two jobs has dropped many families from the middle class in recent months. Many are applying for welfare benefits for the first time. And contrary to historical patterns, many don’t need training to obtain a new job.

“They are not without skills, education or experience,” Stagliano said. “It’s just that there are no jobs.”

Stagliano said that of the immigrant families report some income, meaning one or both of the parents are not “completely unemployed.”

Batson said Hispanic immigrants in particular “place a cultural importance on work,” adding, “There is a predisposition that work is important, and they don’t tend to stay out of work for a long time.”

Jose Silva said he had worked in construction for 11 years in Las Vegas and was seeking help with paying bills for the first time, after his workload dropped from a few days a week to nothing this summer. His family had dropped all unnecessary expenses, including cable television, cell phones and eating out. But walking into the welfare office wasn’t easy, he said.

“It was weird coming here because I’ve never asked for anything,” he said. But he also said he had paid taxes and had Social Security deductions taken out of his paycheck. “I’ve worked a long time and I deserve something back.”

Stagliano is aware of the controversy surrounding families like the Silvas, centering on that very issue of whether they deserve public benefits.

“We have people writing in, saying we shouldn’t supply this service,” he said.

But that’s not his call.

“We have to go by rules established by the federal government,” he said. “Only they can change those rules.”

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