Report

The Trump Administration’s New “Public Charge” Immigration Rule Will Push Thousands of Californians Into Poverty and Hurt the State’s Health and Economy

Aggressive enforcement of immigration laws, actions to reduce the number of immigrants entering the US, and attempts to limit the legal rights of immigrants living in the US have been a signature focus of the Trump Administration.1,2,3  A recently announced change in the rule directing how immigrants can become permanent residents in the US continues the harmful and troubling changes in our nation’s immigration policies.4 For California, the consequences are stark: thousands more families working to build better a better future for themselves and our state will instead live in poverty. In addition, other individuals will be denied the ability to legally enter the country if they’re not wealthy. This rule will result in a significant loss for California’s economy and workforce and cause harm for California immigrants who already fear that receiving food or health assistance may affect their ability to continue living and working in the state and country. Moreover, as this analysis will show, the new rule, coupled with previous executive actions targeting immigrants, will have ripple-effects on the health, development, and economic outcomes of generations to come.

California: A State of Immigrants

Immigrants make up a larger share of the population in California than in any other state. More than 1 in 4 Californians are immigrants, according to US Census Bureau data.5 As of 2016 more than 3.2 million California children lived in families that included noncitizen immigrants, and nearly 90% of these children were themselves US citizens, according to a Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey data.

Immigrants also play a central role in the California economy. Immigrants and children of immigrants made up half of all California workers from 2016 to 2018, according to a Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey data. More than 40% of Silicon Valley high-tech start-ups from 2006 to 2012 were founded by immigrants, and nearly half of the state’s Fortune 500 companies have founders who are immigrants or children of immigrants. 6 For these reasons, changes to immigration rules, such as the new public charge rule, can be expected to have a particularly significant impact on California. At the same time, California’s economy represents about one-seventh of the national economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product, and the state contributes more than one and a half times as much to national GDP as any other state economy.7 As a result, changes that negatively affect California’s residents and workers can be expected to have a substantial impact on the national economy.

What is the Public Charge Rule and Who Is Affected?

Long-standing immigration law, going back to the late 1800s, provides that individuals who are likely to become a “public charge,” or in need of public supports, can be denied entry to the US or denied permission to remain in the US. However, for decades the criteria determining whether someone is considered a public charge has been defined quite narrowly as receiving the majority of resources from monthly cash income supports or relying on publicly-funded long-term institutional care.8

The new public charge rule – officially published August 14 and scheduled to take effect October 15 – makes the definition of public charge much broader in two primary ways. For one, having a family income less than 125% of the federal poverty line, or about $32,000 for a family four currently, will now be considered a negative factor.9 Secondly, the new rule expands the types of public supports considered to include certain non-cash supports including food assistance through SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or CalFresh in California), housing subsidies, and public health insurance for adults age 21 and older through Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California).10 In addition, much more modest use of public supports will be considered an indication of becoming a likely public charge.11 This new definition is extremely broad, considering that more than half of US-born citizens are likely to access the supports included in the new definition at some point in their lifetimes.12

In a draft of the proposed rule, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that the rule “has the potential to erode family stability and decrease disposable income of families and children because the action provides a strong disincentive for the receipt or use of public benefits by aliens, as well as their household members, including US children.”13

It is important to note when the public charge rule is applied. The public charge rule applies when individuals are seeking to enter the US or seeking to adjust their immigration status to long-term permanent resident status. It does not apply to immigrants who already have green cards or to naturalized US citizens, and it does not apply to US-born children of immigrants.14 Use of public supports by other family members, such as US-born children, is not considered a negative factor.15 Also, the new rule defines having income below 125% of the poverty line or using specific public supports as negative factors in determining public charge, but an immigrant’s overall circumstances are considered when an immigration official makes the determination, so these negative factors do not automatically result in denial of permission to enter or remain in the US. Some categories of immigrants are also exempt from the public charge rule, including refugees and survivors of human trafficking or domestic violence.16

Since the rule was published, the state of California, as well as advocacy groups have filed lawsuits to block implementation of the rule.17

The Rule’s “Chilling Effect” and Increased Poverty for Californians

Though the public charge rule only applies in specific, fairly narrow circumstances, it is likely to change the behavior of many more individuals who will never likely be formally assessed under the public charge rule. This is because the new rule is likely to produce a “chilling effect” on use of public supports among individuals in families that include noncitizen immigrants, whereby families do not access public supports to address basic needs for which their family members are eligible, and disenroll from supports that they currently access, out of fear and confusion about the consequences of accessing these types of supports.18 Studies of prior changes to immigrant eligibility for public supports through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) found rates of disenrollment from public supports of 15% to 35% among noncitizen immigrants and citizen children in families that included noncitizen immigrants, with substantial disenrollment observed even among individuals to whom the eligibility changes did not technically apply, such as refugees.19

Similar patterns of disenrollment can reasonably be expected from the changes to the public charge rule. If the new public charge rule results in rates of disenrollment that are similar to those observed as a result of PRWORA, then many thousands of Californians can be expected to disenroll from public supports for which they are eligible and which they currently use to meet basic needs for food, shelter, health care, and other necessities. This disenrollment is likely to result in a substantial increase in the number of Californians living in poverty, according to a Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey data for 2016 used to produce the California Poverty Measure, a joint project of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Public Policy Institute of California.

The two supports newly included in the public charge determination that most directly affect poverty status under the California Poverty Measure are CalFresh food assistance and housing subsidies. Under conservative assumptions for the chilling effect of the new public charge rule – assuming that 15% of families that include noncitizens and include family members  that are receiving CalFresh or housing subsidies  disenroll from those supports – the number of Californians in poverty will increase by an estimated 76,000, and the number in deep poverty (with family resources equal to less than half of the poverty threshold) will increase by an estimated 51,000. If disenrollment rates for these two supports are instead 35%, as observed in some research on PRWORA, the increase in individuals in poverty will be substantially higher, with an estimated 165,000 more Californians pushed into poverty and 115,000 more into deep poverty.

Moreover, out of fear and confusion about the details of the proposed public charge changes, disenrollment can be expected not only from the public supports included in the new rule, but also from public supports that are not included in the public charge determination, such as WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). If 35% of families that include noncitizens and include family members receiving public supports disenroll from all public supports that they currently access, then the number of Californians in poverty will increase by an estimated 461,000, and the number in deep poverty will increase by an estimated 402,000. These estimated increases in the number of Californians in poverty are particularly troubling because California already has the highest poverty rate in the US when accounting for the cost of living.20 By pushing more Californians into poverty, the new public charge rule threatens the health, well-being, and economic security of thousands of children and adults, with potential cascading effects on the state and even national economy over the short term and long term.

It’s important to note too that the new public charge rule follows previous executive actions targeting immigrants, and this latest move only compounds the fear and confusion that may keep families from accessing public supports. Other recent actions include the “Muslim ban” limiting immigration from certain countries and the attempt to end the legal protections provided through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.21,22 Immigrants (even those who already have legal permanent resident status), refugees, and US-born children of immigrants all are at risk of increased hunger and food insecurity, unmet health care needs, and poverty under the Trump Administration’s recent orders and actions.

Public Health and the Economy will Suffer

The analysis above considers the effects of disenrollment in public supports that most directly affect whether families are considered to be in poverty under the California Poverty Measure. The new public charge rule can also be expected to cause individuals to disenroll from Medi-Cal, California’s public health insurance program, which has a less direct effect on the calculation of poverty status but very significant effects on health and well-being.

In a study among adults who are foreign-born or living with foreign-born family members conducted in December 2018, after publication of the proposed public charge rule, one in seven (13.7%) adults reported that they or a family member did not participate in a noncash benefit program out of fear of risking future green card status. This rate was higher (20.7%) among adults in families earning less than 200% Federal Poverty Level. Health insurance through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program was the second-most-common program for which chilling was reported (after food assistance through SNAP).23 Health care providers across California that serve immigrant communities also reported increasing concerns about enrollment in Medi-Cal, WIC, and CalFresh among their patients.24

The chilling effect of public charge could impact up to 2.2 million Californians in immigrant families enrolled in CalFresh and/or Medi-Cal, most of whom would not be subject to the new public charge test. Disenrollment from these programs would most significantly impact Latinx and Asian families, as well as children.25 The Children’s Partnership estimated the impact of the changes to public charge on children’s enrollment in public programs and found that the uninsured rate among all children in California would rise from 3% to as high as 8.2% and up to 311,000 children in immigrant families would lose access to CalFresh despite remaining eligible.26 Furthermore, if immigrant mothers forgo essential pregnancy and postpartum-related services due to (unfounded) fears of being deemed a public charge, this could lead to higher rates of poor birth outcomes—including higher rates of low birthweight and infant mortality—which can lead to poorer long-term health and developmental outcomes for children.

In addition to poorer health outcomes, the rule would also have adverse effects on the state economy and the financial stability of many hospitals. California could lose up to $1.67 billion in federal benefits if 35% of Californians impacted by the chilling effect disenroll from Medi-Cal and CalFresh, according to an analysis by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Given that these federal dollars would have been cycled through California’s economy multiple times, this would yield an even greater loss of spending throughout the broader state economy. Other detrimental effects include up to 17,700 lost jobs, primarily from the health care sector and food-related industries and up to $151 million lost in state and local tax revenue. The financial stability of hospitals across the state, particularly those in communities with large immigrant populations, would also experience a loss. California, with 406 hospitals, is estimated to lose up to $5.2 billion in Medicaid and CHIP payments.27

Public Charge Continues Efforts to Harm Immigrant Families

The new public charge rule will push thousands of Californians into poverty, negatively impact the health and well-being of immigrant families across the state, and result in damages to the state economy. Even the threat of being classified as a “public charge” has sowed fear in immigrant communities and has caused many families to forgo much needed health, food, and housing assistance. Furthermore, it is not only another blatant attack on immigrant families and communities, it is also an attack on families and individuals who access public benefits more broadly. This latest rule, along with many other harsh actions taken by this Administration, will harm the socioeconomic well-being of many California families today and future generations.


1 California Budget & Policy Center, May Revision Adds Modest New Resources to Address Federal Actions on Immigration and Other Issues (May 2019).

2 Sara Kimberlin, Who Are the Californians Affected by the Recent Immigration Executive Orders? (California Budget & Policy Center: April 2017).

3 Sara Kimberlin and Amy Rose, Failure to Extend Legal Protection for California’s “Dreamers” Could Have Serious Economic and Fiscal Consequences (California Budget & Policy Center: January 2018).

4 84 Federal Register 41292 (2019).

5 Sara Kimberlin, Half of All California Workers Are Immigrants or Children of Immigrants (California Budget & Policy Center: April 2019).

6 Sara Kimberlin, Half of All California Workers Are Immigrants or Children of Immigrants (California Budget & Policy Center: April 2019).

7 Sara Kimberlin, California and Federal Dollars: A Two-Way Street (California Budget & Policy Center: July 2017).

8 Danilo Trisi, Trump Administration’s Overbroad Public Charge Definition Could Deny Those Without Substantial Means a Chance to Come to or Stay in the US (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: May 2019).

9 84 Federal Register 41292 (2019), p. 41503.

10 84 Federal Register 41292 (2019), p. 41501. Medicaid benefits used in certain situations would not count toward public charge under the new rule. These exceptions include emergency medical care, services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school-based services, and pregnancy and the first 60 days of post-partum care.

11 84 Federal Register 41292 (2019), p. 41501.

12 Danilo Trisi, Trump Administration’s Overbroad Public Charge Definition Could Deny Those Without Substantial Means a Chance to Come to or Stay in the US (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: May 2019).

13 Department of Homeland Security, 8 CFR Parts 103, 212, 213, 214, [237], and 248, Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds (draft of proposed rule), p. 186.

14 National Immigration Law Center, Proposed Changes to the Public Charge Rule (November 2018).

15 84 Federal Register 41292  (2019), p. 41502.

16 National Immigration Law Center, Proposed Changes to the Public Charge Rule (November 2018).

17 California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Attorney General Becerra Leads Coalition of Five Attorneys General, Files Suit Challenging Trump Administration Public Charge Rule (August 2019).

18 Hamutal Bernstein et al., One in Seven Adults in Immigrant Families Reported Avoiding Public Benefit Programs in 2018 (Urban Institute: May 2019).

19 Ninez Ponce, Laurel Lucia, and Tia Shimada, Fact Sheet: Proposed Changes to Immigration Rules Could Cost California Jobs, Harm Public Health and Seminar Slides: How Proposed Changes to the ‘Public Charge’ Rule Will Affect Health, Hunger and the Economy in California (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research: December 2018).

20 Esi Hutchful and Sara Kimberlin, New Census Figures Show That California Has 7.5 Million Residents Living in Poverty — More Than Any Other State (California Budget & Policy Center: September 2018).

21 National Immigration Law Center, Understanding Trump’s Muslim Bans (March 2019).

22 Sara Kimberlin and Amy Rose, Failure to Extend Legal Protection for California’s “Dreamers” Could Have Serious Economic and Fiscal Consequences (California Budget & Policy Center: January 2018).

23  Hamutal Bernstein et al., One in Seven Adults in Immigrant Families Reported Avoiding Public Benefit Programs in 2018 (Urban Institute: May 2019).

24 The Children’s Partnership and California Immigrant Policy Center, Healthy Mind, Healthy Future: Promoting the Mental Health and Well-Being of Children in Immigrant Families in California (2018), p. 27.

25 Ninez Ponce, Laurel Lucia, and Tia Shimada, Fact Sheet: Proposed Changes to Immigration Rules Could Cost California Jobs, Harm Public Health (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research: December 2018).

26 The Children’s Partnership, Potential Effects of Public Charge Changes on California’s Children (2018).

27 Cindy Mann, April Grady, and Allison Orris, Medicaid Payments at Risk for Hospitals Under the Public Charge Proposed Rule (Manatt: November 2018), p. 12.