By Jeremy Barofsky

Note: this is a timely update to a post about the policy implications of the sludge-filled public charge rule change. Click here to read the original post and view our analysis.

On February 24, the federal government’s new “public charge” rule took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a temporary nationwide injunction blocking implementation of the rule on January 27 of this year. This comes on the heels of another injunction lifted by the Supreme Court on February 21 by a court that blocked the public charge rule in Illinois.

As of Monday, the Department of Homeland Security can now legally enforce this expanded definition to assess whether a prospective immigrant is likely to become reliant on government assistance – a public charge. For the past two decades, use of noncash benefits like health insurance and nutrition or housing support were not seen as contributing to this determination. Under the new rule, receiving these benefits, as well as a broader range of cash assistance, will be considered evidence for inadmissibility or denial of a green card.

In short, the rule makes it harder for low-income immigrants to become permanent residents if they use common safety net benefits. Most experts predict that the new rule will lead to millions fewer participants in programs like Medicaid and SNAP (formerly food stamps). However, since most noncitizens seeking a green card are not eligible for these benefits in the first place, the decline is likely to come instead from benefits-eligible U.S. citizen children with noncitizen parents and noncitizens exempt from the rule based on their refugee or asylum status. Put bluntly, misinformation and fear generated by the announcement among individuals not subject to the rule is likely to drive decreased access to crucial programs for low-income individuals.

Safety net programs like Medicaid produce clear benefits: they reduce poverty, especially among children, and improve health. Indeed, as chronicled in our post from a few months ago, there is already evidence that the mere announcement of the public charge rule change in October 2018 had a chilling effect on safety net participation. Additionally, even though a program to provide nutritional support to infants and pregnant women (WIC) is not technically included in the new public charge rule, we also noted sharp declines in use of this program.

Beyond flying in the face of everything we know about how to design policies with positive social impact to help end poverty, we interpret this initial reduction as additional evidence that the rule change is expanding a climate of fear that is already having (and will continue to have) short- and long-term consequences on the well-being of low-income individuals, many of whom are U.S. citizens. Now that it has been enacted, those negative effects are likely to expand over time.

Read analysis of the rule change in our original post.