What Public Benefits Can a Green Card Holder Receive?

To find out whether you meet the eligibility requirements for a particular public benefit, you'll need to seek information from your local public benefits office.

If you are a U.S. green card holder (“permanent resident”) who finds yourself in need, you might consider applying for public benefits (government financial or other assistance). However, you probably have a lot of questions, such as:

  • Do I qualify for any public benefits?
  • Will receiving public benefits put me at risk of losing my permanent resident status, being deported, or becoming ineligible for U.S. citizenship?

We'll answer the first question below, and the second in, Receiving Public Benefits + Travel = Potential Inadmissibility for a Green Card Holder.

To clarify, the information that follows is intended only for permanent residents. If you hold any other status, for example if you are a DACA recipient or nonimmigrant visa holder, the public benefit rules that apply to you could be very different.

Public Benefits Eligibility for Immigrants

The types of public benefits a permanent resident can receive depend, naturally, on the eligibility requirements of the specific program.

Benefit amounts vary depending on the federal, state, or county that's providing the benefit, as well as factors such as your family size. To find out whether you meet the eligibility requirements for a public benefit, you'll need to seek information from your local public benefits office. This article will give you an overview of the programs that green card holders are most likely to be eligible for.

Note that the federal names of benefit programs discussed here might have different names in the state or county where you live. For example, what the federal government calls "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)" is called “CalWORKs” in California.

In addition, know that some counties and states have public benefits programs that are specifically intended for immigrants who cannot qualify for federal public benefit programs. For example, in California some immigrants who do not qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of their immigration status can receive assistance through the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI).

Factors Considered in Assessing a Permanent Resident's Eligibility for Benefits

The benefits that a lawful permanent resident (LPR) can receive will depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • when the LPR obtained permanent resident status
  • how the LPR obtained permanent resident status
  • whether the LPR has credit for “40 quarters" of work in the U.S.
  • the county or state that the LPR lives in, and
  • whether “deeming rules” apply. Under “deeming rules,” the income of an LPR's “sponsor(s)” is also counted when determining whether the LPR can receive public benefits.

We will assume that the LPR received this status on or after August 22, 1996 (the date that more restrictive rules about immigrant access to public benefits came into effect) and was never in any of the following categories, to which special (and often more generous) rules apply:

  • asylee
  • refugee
  • withholding of removal recipient
  • Cuban/Haitian
  • Amerasian
  • victim of trafficking
  • Iraqi or Afghan special immigrant (SIV) visa holder
  • abused spouse or child of a permanent resident or U.S. citizen
  • Native American who was born outside of the U.S.
  • U.S. military veteran
  • active duty member of the U.S. military
  • spouse of a member of the U.S. military
  • surviving, un-remarried spouse of a deceased member of the U.S. military, or
  • surviving child of a deceased member of the U.S. military.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

SSI is a federal benefits program that provides cash assistance to low-income seniors (65 years or older) and low-income disabled children and adults.

Permanent residents (LPRs) cannot apply for SSI benefits until they have lived in the U.S. for five years. After five years in the U.S., an LPR will qualify for SSI only if he or she has credit for 40 "quarters" of work. (“Quarters” is a legal term that means a three-month period in which you earn a certain amount of money. If you work all year, you’ll be credited for four quarters that year, so it will take at least ten years to qualify for SSI.)

There are special rules about how to count the 40 quarters, including:

  • Only work in the U.S. counts towards the 40-quarter requirement.
  • If the person receives any “means-tested public benefits” during a quarter, no credit will be given for that quarter.
  • The work of parents performed while a permanent resident is under age 18 can be counted, and
  • The work of a spouse performed during the marriage (as long as there was no divorce or annulment) can be counted.

In most cases, if you are subject to an active warrant for deportation or removal from the U.S., you’ll lose your eligibility for SSI.

Social Security Benefits

Permanent residents are ordinarily eligible for Social Security benefits if they have accrued 40 credits (equivalent to ten years of work or 40 quarters).

Social Security benefits include retirement payments, disability benefits, and survivors’ benefits (for the survivors of deceased workers).

But one important eligibility criteria is that if the permanent resident's Social Security number was issued on or after January 1, 2004, the number must have been valid for work or the work for which the permanent resident is seeking credit must have been performed while the LPR was temporarily in the U.S. and had status as a businessperson or crewman.

Medicare (Hospitalization/Free and Buy-In)

LPRs who have been in the United States for five years are normally eligible to receive Medicare. Medicare is intended for people who are over the age of 65, or people with certain qualifying disabilities. There are several different types of Medicare, including:

  • Part A, which covers major procedures such as hospitalizations or surgeries
  • Part B, which covers outpatient benefits such as doctor’s office visits, lab work, X-rays, and so on
  • Part C, which combines components of Part A and B, as well as additional coverage (vision, dental, and more), and
  • Part D, which covers prescription medication.

Americans or LPRs who have worked 40 credit hours do not need to pay for Medicare Part A. However, if you are an LPR who has lived in the U.S. for five years but has not worked long enough, you can purchase Medicare Part A coverage and pay a monthly premium (as of mid-2019, a Medicare Part A premium cost over $400/mo.).

Both citizens and LPRs need to pay for Medicare parts B, C and D.

Medicaid (Full-Scope and Emergency)

Medicaid is a health coverage program for low-income individuals, children, families, elderly persons, and disabled persons. Each state runs a Medicaid program, though many give it a different name.

Two types of opportunities for medical care are offered under Medicaid: Emergency Medicaid and Full-Scope Medicaid. Permanent residents mostly qualify for Emergency Medicaid without exception, assuming they meet the general, non-immigration-related eligibility requirements.

To qualify for Full-Scope Medicaid, permanent residents must, in most cases, have been in this status for at least five years. A handful of states require 40 quarters of work before providing Full-Scope Medicaid benefits.

Also, the “deeming rules” described above may apply.

To find out whether your state provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents who are under 21 or pregnant, contact your local, county, or state public benefits office.

Your state also might provide LPRs certain medical benefits funded without Medicaid money.

Health Insurance Marketplace

LPRs are eligible to apply for insurance coverage through the health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act or ACA (sometimes also known as "Obamacare").

Depending on your income level, you might be able to receive a subsidy or reduced insurance rate on the marketplace.

Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

CHIP provides health coverage to children living in families that cannot get Medicaid because their income is too high, but do not have enough money to pay for private insurance.

To normally qualify for CHIP, permanent residents must:

  • have been a permanent resident for five years, and
  • be a child under 21 AND live in a state that provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents, or
  • be pregnant AND live in a state that provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents

The “deeming rules” described above may apply. However, many states have taken advantage of an option in the CHIP program to provide CHIP assistance to “lawfully residing” children and pregnant woman, regardless of their date of entry into the United States. Check with your state agency to see whether your state offers this benefit.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

TANF is a federal program that provides money to states to reduce poverty. Low-income families that qualify receive cash assistance, but must also participate in job training and other programs designed to eliminate dependence on cash assistance.

In most states, LPRs who have maintained their lawful resident status for five years can qualify for TANF, assuming they meet other program requirements. A handful of states require 40 quarters of work before providing TANF benefits.

Even if an LPR meets general eligibility requirements, however, it is possible that the “deeming rules” described above will prevent the person from receiving TANF.

Many states have programs that provide cash assistance to immigrants who are not eligible for TANF, although the benefit levels may be lower, and other restrictions and time limits may apply.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP is a federal program that provides money to states so that they can help people with limited income purchase food. People who qualify for SNAP receive electronic debit cards for use in purchasing groceries.

Permanent residents under 18 years of age may qualify for SNAP benefits. In most cases, an LPR who is older than 18 will qualify for SNAP only if he or she has credit for 40 quarters of work.

As with TANF, the “deeming rules” described above may result in ineligibility.

Some states have programs to supply food benefits instead of SNAP to permanent residents who do not qualify for SNAP benefits.

Federally Funded Public Housing and “Section 8” Housing

Section 8 is a voucher program that gives low-income individuals and families money with which to rent housing in the private market. Federally funded public housing provides government-owned housing to low-income individuals, families, the disabled, and the elderly. Usually, federally funded public housing is owned or managed by a local government's “housing authority.”

Permanent residents are potentially eligible for federally funded public housing as well as “Section 8.”

If there is one permanent resident in the household and other people living in the home who are not eligible for federal public housing or Section 8, the rent will probably be prorated so that the only person receiving the federal housing benefit is the LPR.

There are also other types of affordable housing (such as Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (“LIHTC” communities) that do not have any citizenship requirements, for which LPRs also qualify.

Expect the Public Benefits Agency to Verify LPR Status

Usually, a permanent resident can simply show a green card to prove the required immigration status. But the public benefits agency may also get in touch with immigration authorities to verify the applicant's immigration status, often through the online Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program.

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) receives this sort of request to check on immigration status, it is not supposed to use the information to start removal (deportation) proceedings; except where the permanent resident has committed certain crimes.

However, DHS does not explicitly guarantee that it will not investigate an applicant who applied for public benefits. Therefore, if you have been charged with or convicted of any crime (even if you received “diversion” or other alternative sentencing programs and even if any convictions have been expunged or “cleaned” from your record) or you have had any other history that could put your LPR status at risk, you should talk to an immigration attorney before applying for public benefits.

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