January 31, 2003

Commentary

Low-income families struggle as benefits shrink

By Bernardo Ruiz

The uncertain economy is taking a toll on many Americans. Among the hardest hit are immigrant working families.

Low-income immigrant families are likely to remain in poverty even if both parents work, a recent Urban Institute study shows. In fact, children of two-parent immigrant families are twice as likely to live in low-income households as children of two-parent native families that did not immigrate in the last generation.

Immigrants and their children contribute long-term economic benefits to the United States. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found that the typical immigrant and his or her children pay an estimated $80,000 more in taxes than they will receive in local, state and federal benefits over their lifetimes. Yet the Bush administration seeks to ban welfare benefits for noncitizens entering the country after 1996. This is anything but compassionate.

At a time when even middle-class families are struggling to pay for health insurance, many immigrant parents and their children have fallen below the safety net. The number of low-income noncitizen parents who have Medicaid coverage fell by almost one-third between 1995 and 1999, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And with House Republicans recently refusing to expand unemployment insurance, more than 800,000 workers will have their benefits cut off at the end of the month.

Everyone has a basic right to affordable health care, especially those who work hard and struggle everyday to make ends meet.

But instead of addressing issues affecting working families, the Bush administration prefers to rely on talk of an “era of personal responsibility.”

What the administration and Congress need to do is begin by raising the minimum wage, as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., recently suggested, from $5.25 to $6.55.

The administration and Congress could also pass a law that would exempt the first $30,000 of income from payroll taxes, a proposal Robert Reich, President Clinton’s labor secretary has made. This would instantly provide the working poor with a bigger paycheck.

Another step would be to expand medical and health-insurance benefits for working families, immigrants and their children. With one in five children growing up in an immigrant home, and with immigrants —both documented and undocumented— accounting for 13 percent of the nation’s workforce, they deserve nothing less.

Immigrant working families and their children should not have to suffer needlessly.

Bernardo Ruiz is a freelance writer and documentary producer living in New York City. He is co-producing “The Sixth Section,” a documentary that follows the organization efforts of undocumented Mexican workers in upstate New York, which will air on PBS in the summer. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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