Expanding Inclusion in the Social Safety Net: Impacts of New York’s Excluded Workers Fund

Response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession spurred a wave of policy innovation around the country. The pandemic revealed weak spots in our social safety net, and governments scrambled to fix them—at least temporarily. Although federal efforts typically tried to carve out undocumented immigrants (Smith et al. 2020), many states and localities around the country made a particular effort to include immigrants and others who were excluded.1The federal economic impact payments or “stimulus checks,” for example, excluded undocumented immigrants, and in the initial round, also their spouses and children (see Guelespe et al. 2022). At the state and local level, there were various efforts to extend assistance, including a number of cash funds supported by philanthropy (see “The Emma Lazarus Campaign, Executive Summary,” International Migration Initiative and Open Society Foundation, March 2021, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/uploads/5c240f26-bde9-4c7f-a115-0a86d34506a7/emma-lazarus-campaign-executive-summary-20210308.pdf), California’s $75 million cash assistance fund for undocumented immigrants, and moves to expand Medicaid eligibility such as Illinois’s expansion to low-income seniors regardless of immigration status. New York’s Excluded Worker Fund (EWF) was by far the largest of these efforts. The New York fund was a $2.1 billion program that allowed 130,000 immigrants without work authorization, as well as some others who fell between the gaps of federal aid, to get unemployment compensation if they lost work during the pandemic recession. The amount of aid to the vast majority of workers, $15,600, was nearly as much as the annual amount other New Yorkers who lost work were getting in unemployment insurance.2For an overview of similar funds around the country, see Dyssegaard Kallick and colleagues (2022a).

To better understand the successes and shortcomings of the program, the Urban Institute and Immigration Research Initiative conducted a survey of individuals in the population targeted for aid by this fund. Findings from this survey are intended to help inform advocacy efforts and future legislation, as New York advocates urge inclusion in the 2023 budget and states and localities across the nation consider implementation of permanent unemployment benefit programs for excluded workers.

We sought to survey individuals who would have been eligible for the EWF, regardless of whether they applied for or received the funds. To qualify for the EWF, applicants had to meet residency and financial requirements, and they could not have received regular or expanded unemployment insurance. We partnered with 10 community-based organizations (CBOs) to reach out to constituents that could have qualified for the fund.

A total of 408 workers responded to the survey in seven languages including English, Arabic, Bangla, Chinese, French, Korean, and Spanish, with geographic representation from immigrants in Long Island, New York City, the northern suburbs of New York City, and Upstate New York. Working alongside CBOs helped to inform the research design and to build trust among community members that they were being given a confidential and meaningful opportunity to inform future government policy.

These survey results provide insights from a population for which survey data are hard to find and contributes to an appraisal of the success of a groundbreaking program seeking to bridge a gap in a crucial part of the social safety net.

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  • 1
    The federal economic impact payments or “stimulus checks,” for example, excluded undocumented immigrants, and in the initial round, also their spouses and children (see Guelespe et al. 2022). At the state and local level, there were various efforts to extend assistance, including a number of cash funds supported by philanthropy (see “The Emma Lazarus Campaign, Executive Summary,” International Migration Initiative and Open Society Foundation, March 2021, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/uploads/5c240f26-bde9-4c7f-a115-0a86d34506a7/emma-lazarus-campaign-executive-summary-20210308.pdf), California’s $75 million cash assistance fund for undocumented immigrants, and moves to expand Medicaid eligibility such as Illinois’s expansion to low-income seniors regardless of immigration status.
  • 2
    For an overview of similar funds around the country, see Dyssegaard Kallick and colleagues (2022a).
  • David Dyssegaard Kallick

    Kallick is director of Immigration Research Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that looks at immigration issues.

  • Elaine Waxman

    Elaine Waxman is a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Her expertise includes food insecurity, nutrition, and the US safety net, as well as broader issues affecting families and communities with low incomes. She received her MPP and PhD from the University of Chicago, where she is currently a lecturer at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

  • Hamutal Bernstein

    Hamutal Bernstein is a principal research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center, where she leads Urban’s program on immigrants and immigration. Her research focuses on the well-being and integration of immigrant and refugee families and workers. Her areas of expertise include immigration and integration, workforce development and training, and human services. Before joining Urban, Bernstein was a program officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and research associate at the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of International Migration. Bernstein received her BA in international relations from Brown University and her PhD in government from Georgetown University.

  • Poonam Gupta

    Poonam Gupta is a research analyst in the Income and Benefits Policy Center, where she focuses on social safety net policy. She works on several projects related to federal nutrition programs and food insecurity. Gupta holds BAs in public health and Spanish from the Johns Hopkins University and an MSPH in international health from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

  • Paola Echave

    Paola Echave is a research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center. Her areas of expertise include immigration and health. Her research focuses on the role of immigration enforcement on the health, economic, and social well-being of Latinx and immigrant communities. She has extensive training in quantitative and qualitative methods and experience with large-scale social science and demographic surveys. She is currently the project manager of the Annual Survey of Refugees for the US Department of Health and Human Services. Before joining Urban, Echave worked as a research assistant at the Ohio State University, where she conducted research and published work on the role of obesity on the risk of mortality and trends in specific health outcomes in the US. Echave holds a BA in criminology from the University of New Mexico and master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from the Ohio State University.

  • Julio Salas

    Julio Salas is a research intern in the Income and Benefits Policy Center. Julio is also a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy fellow and was a recent legislative health fellow at the US House of Representatives, where he led a health portfolio. Julio graduated from Cornell University and Queensborough Community College with degrees in human development and health sciences.

  • Luis Gallardo

    Luis Hassan Gallardo is a research assistant in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute. His past research focused on United States immigration policy and the barriers vulnerable populations face in accessing health and welfare services. Gallardo graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with degrees in political science and ethnic studies.

  • Ashleigh-Ann Suthlerland

    Sutherland is a senior policy analyst at Immigration Research Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that looks at immigration issues.