Immigrant Families in California Faced Barriers Accessing Safety Net Programs in 2021, but Community Organizations Helped Many Enroll

Dulce Gonzalez, Michael Karpman, and Clara Alvarez Caraveo

Immigrant families were especially hard hit by the pandemic but also faced unique barriers to accessing safety net programs. Major federal relief initiatives followed longstanding federal practices of excluding undocumented people from eligibility. Even among eligible immigrant families, language barriers, a fear of immigration consequences, and other factors added to the difficulty many people face in meeting complex program requirements.

But a shift is underway in states such as California, where policymakers have been taking meaningful steps toward a more inclusive safety net for immigrants and their families. As the state closes gaps in eligibility based on immigration status for some programs, understanding the difficulties navigating safety net programs that eligible immigrant families in California share with other families, as well as their unique barriers, can inform policies that help them obtain needed assistance.

Drawing on data from the December 2021 round of the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, a nationally representative survey of nonelderly adults, we assessed family participation in and experiences with seven public benefit programs among adults in California immigrant families in 2021.1 We define adults in immigrant families as those who were born outside the US or live with any family members born outside the US, and we use “US-born families” to refer to those in which all family members were born in the US.

Adults could have reported program participation for themselves, a spouse or partner, or their children under age 19 who live with them. We also estimated the share of adults in immigrant families who reported they did not apply for noncash public benefit programs because of concerns about adversely affecting their or a family member’s immigration status. Our analysis focused on adults with family incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Findings from this study shed light on key access challenges and potential strategies for reducing enrollment barriers for eligible families.

Safety net programs help many families in California meet basic needs, including families with immigrants.

In December 2021, about two-thirds of adults in California immigrant families with incomes below 400 percent of FPL reported their families applied for or participated in one or more safety net programs in the past 12 months; their participation rates were similar to those for adults in US-born families for each program examined. Health insurance coverage through Medi-Cal or the Children’s Health Insurance Program was the most frequently reported benefit adults in immigrant families applied for or received (52 percent), followed by CalFresh (30 percent); Medi-Cal and CalFresh are California’s Medicaid program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Additionally, approximately one in four adults in immigrant families (24 percent) reported receiving or applying for unemployment benefits.

Though most adults in immigrant families reported positive experiences applying for or participating in safety net programs, some faced difficulties accessing benefits and interacting with program staff. Adults in immigrant and US-born families reported these challenges at similar rates.

Forty-three percent of adults in immigrant families who applied for or participated in at least one program reported some difficulty with the application process for one or more programs. This was not statistically different from the share of adults in US-born families who reported enrollment challenges. Difficulties with enrollment for adults in immigrant families include having trouble navigating eligibility (29 percent) and providing required documentation or paperwork (24 percent) and not getting benefits as soon as needed (28 percent). Just over one in seven (15 percent) adults in immigrant families reported ever feeling treated or judged unfairly because of their racial or ethnic background when interacting with the staff of one or more programs. In addition to experiencing challenges with enrollment and interacting with program staff, more than one in six Spanish-speaking adults in immigrant families reported difficulty finding information for one or more programs in their preferred language (18 percent).

Community organizations played a key role in connecting California immigrant families to the safety net.

One in five adults in immigrant families who applied for or participated in one or more safety net programs received application assistance from a community organization for at least one program. This was more than twice the rate at which adults in US-born families received help from community organizations with the application process (20 versus 8 percent).

Many adults in immigrant families avoided applying for noncash benefit programs because of green card and other immigration concerns in 2021.

Approximately one in four adults in California immigrant families reported avoiding public noncash benefit programs such as Medi-Cal, CalFresh, and housing subsidies because of green card and other immigration concerns. Additionally, about one in six adults in immigrant families (16 percent) reported their family did not apply for one or more noncash benefit programs in the past year because they were unsure whether they were eligible based on their or a family member’s immigration status. Nearly one in seven (13 percent) reported not applying because they were asked to provide a Social Security number or proof of citizenship or immigration status when applying for a family member.

The findings from this study show that many adults in both immigrant and US-born families in California relied on federal and state safety net programs to meet health, food, and housing needs and to replace lost income in 2021 as the nation began recovering from the pandemic. But a substantial share of these families reported difficulty navigating enrollment processes, negative interactions with program staff, and trouble getting benefits as soon as needed. Key strategies to improve access include

  • mitigating the chilling effects of the public charge rule and other immigration concerns,
  • increasing support for community-based enrollment assistance,
  • reducing language barriers,
  • improving customer service experience, and
  • reducing administrative burdens in the enrollment process.

Renewed efforts at the federal and state levels to review and ameliorate programmatic barriers and close information gaps provide an opportunity to make the safety net more inclusive and effective for all state residents, including income-eligible immigrants. Community organizations can also serve as a strong intermediary to guide families through complex program enrollment processes and ensure they get assistance with health, nutrition, housing, and other basic needs.


The seven programs examined are Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California) or the Children’s Health Insurance Program; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as CalFresh in California; rental assistance; unemployment insurance benefits; Supplemental Security Income; Social Security Disability Insurance; and cash assistance from a state or county welfare program, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as CalWORKs in California.

About the Authors

Dulce Gonzalez is a research associate in the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. Michael Karpman is a senior research associate in the Health Policy Center. Clara Alvarez Caraveo is a research analyst in the Health Policy Center.


This executive summary was funded by the California Health Care Foundation. Funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the 2021 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of Urban experts. Further information on the Urban Institute’s funding principles is available at The authors are grateful to Amy Adams, Ignatius Bau, Hamutal Bernstein, Benyamin Chao, Laurel Lucia, Sara McTarnaghan, Anne Sunderland, Elaine Waxman, and Stephen Zuckerman for their comments and suggestions.

Translate »