Researchers Warn that “Public Charge” Rule Changes Would Lead to Hardship, Economic Losses in California

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The Trump administration’s proposed changes to public charge rules for deciding immigration cases could push thousands of Californians out of government assistance programs and result in billions of dollars of losses to the state’s economy, according to a forthcoming analysis from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Under the changes the federal government proposed in October, legal immigrants applying for permanent residency could be denied if they’ve received certain public health care, food or housing benefits. In California, these benefits include Medi-Cal, the state’s version of Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income residents; housing assistance such as Section 8 vouchers; and CalFresh, the state’s name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

Even though the rule changes would affect a relatively narrow group of people, experts predict hundreds of thousands more Californians could drop out of government programs because of confusion and fear. This so-called chilling effect would disproportionately affect children and Latinos, increasing poverty, hunger and poor health in communities across the state, researchers said.

“Entire communities benefit when everyone has access to food and health care and other basic resources, and in turn entire communities bear the brunt when access is withheld,” said Tia Shimada, director of programs at the nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates, speaking at a seminar about the UCLA findings. “The proposed changes to public charge would make us a sicker, hungrier and poorer country.”

One in 10 Californians receives food stamps through CalFresh; three-quarters of them are children. The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research estimated between 129,000 and 301,000 people would remove themselves from the program if the public charge rules take effect. That would make it harder for those families to afford food and other basic needs, researchers said. It would also hurt food retailers and the agriculture sector, they concluded.

For Medi-Cal, which provides health insurance to a third of Californians, the public charge rules could push between 317,000 and 741,000 people to un-enroll, the analysts predicted. The change would lead to fewer children and adults receiving preventative care, and stymie kids’ chances of success in school and later life, they said.

California’s economy would suffer too, the researchers agreed. Dropouts from Medi-Cal and CalFresh could result in up to $1.7 billion in lost federal revenue to the state. Beyond that, it could result in as many as 17,700 lost jobs, mainly in the health care, food and real estate industries, the analysis found. That could cost state and local governments $151 million in taxes, and result in up to $2.8 billion in lost economic output across the state, the researchers said.

The rule changes haven’t been approved yet, but already agencies that administer public programs are reporting a sharp rise in people dropping out, even from programs not included in the proposed public charge rules. This includes the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, a supplemental food program for pregnant women and young children, which is not part of the federal proposal.

Joy Ahrens, director of WIC programs at Northeast Valley Health Corporation, which runs 13 WIC sites in the Los Angeles area, said immigrant patients are now frequently asking to be removed from the program and not coming in for appointments.

“Sometimes they’ll come in and say I want you to take me off the program, and sometimes we call them to try to reschedule and they’re telling us they’re not going to come in,” she said. “We try to tell them … the law hasn’t changed, WIC is not a public charge, come in, it’s important for you and your child’s health, but they’re reluctant.”

Shimada urged the public to comment on the proposed federal rule changes before the Dec. 10 deadline so their concerns are taken into account. Federal officials mustconsider the public comments before issuing the final rule. If they decide to move forward with the rule, it would take effect within 60 days of that decision.

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