In the summer of 2021, after more than a year of pandemic-related employment loss, evictions, and food insecurity, for undocumented New Yorkers, the situation was even more challenging. Without access to government support, like stimulus checks and SNAP, primarily Black, Latinx, and Asian immigrants were left to figure out how to make ends meet. 

But, that’s when a government-supported effort to reach undocumented individuals in New York, partnered with local organizations to provide some kind of relief.  

On August 1, 2021, the Excluded Workers Fund began taking applications from mostly undocumented workers in New York who were ineligible to receive unemployment insurance — the relief was more than $15,000.  

The New York fund was a $2.1 billion program that allowed 130,000 immigrants to get compensation for lost work during the pandemic.  

But what was the result of this funding? 

That’s a question Poonam Gupta and Ash Sutherland had. They’re two of the eight authors of a new report, Expanding Inclusion in the Social Safety Net: Impacts of New Yorks Excluded Workers Fund, by the Urban Insitute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research organization that provides data and evidence to help advance upward mobility and equity, and the Immigration Research Initiative.

“Not many people were talking about those that weren’t getting the stimulus checks,” Sutherland, a senior policy analyst at the Immigration Research Initiative, says. “Everyone was just really happy that they were getting this money from the government and kind of living their lives while forgetting that this vulnerable population didn’t have that ability.” 

Gupta, a research associate at the Urban Institute, says because the immigrant and undocumented population in New York is often labeled hard to reach, there is a lack of data from this group. But, the report takes a deep dive into the impact of this funding, who benefited from it, and why funding like this needs to continue.  

“Data is power,” Gupta says. “The more data there is, the less policymakers can ignore the issue.” 

Urban Institute and Immigration Research Initiative conducted a survey from June 21 to July 27, 2022, with a total of 408 people responding to the survey. Most of the respondents were between the ages of 35 to 59, and more than half were Latinx, with Asian or Pacific Islander and Black being the second and third largest groups. 

Most recipients received the tier 1 benefit of $15,600, and some who could not provide enough proof of residency or work status received the tier 2 benefit of $3,200. The research team found that most recipients of the Excluded Workers Fund used the money toward overdue or back rent and food.  

For approved recipients, the funds were distributed one to two months after the application process, which meant the money ran out quickly. Other top uses for the money were paying back debt and loans, paying ongoing rent, paying for education for the recipient, themselves, or their children, and purchasing items for their children.  

Although most used the funds for expenses, the money allowed recipients to invest in their businesses, obtain job training, or interview for a new job. Others used the funds to improve their living situation, like moving to a new apartment or a different neighborhood. 

The report also details how folks who received the Excluded Workers Fund benefits were also connected to positive civic engagement activities, like filing for an individual taxpayer identification number, applying for a local or state government ID or driver’s license, and participating in community empowerment. 

“A lot of these individuals did not feel a part of what we do as a country, like voting because they can’t,” Sutherland says. “However, getting this money, they were able to be a part of community organizations, help small business, they really used it to make sure that they were a part of this community and this country moving forward.” 

Despite there being many positive benefits to receiving this funding, providing the required documentation for the Excluded Workers fund application was one of the most common challenges. Some individuals were not able to provide proof of identity, employment loss, and residency, which impacted their application, leaving many applicants unsuccessful.  

“This is a population that by nature tries to stay hidden,” Gupta says. “So, finding documentation to prove your residency, that you lost income, or getting a letter from your employer, that probably doesn’t want anyone to know that they even employed you in the first place, those are all very difficult things.” 

Additional challenges for undocumented New Yorkers applying for the program benefits included a fear it would impact their immigration status and approval for a green card. Sutherland says part of this issue is the lack of trust undocumented immigrants have in the government. 

“There’s this belief that the more that you rely on the safety net programs, the more likely you’re going to be denied if you ever apply for citizenship in the future,” they said. “There might have been a slew of people that fell through the cracks because they wanted to ensure that they would be able to become a citizen one day.” 

Of the thousands who applied and were denied and those who chose not to apply out of fear it would impact their immigration status, the report states non-recipients faced more severe financial distress in the absence of the Excluded Workers Fund benefits.  

Non-recipients faced higher rates of food insecurity, difficulty paying the full amount of gas, oil, or electric bills, and rent or mortgage, and are still paying back debt and loans received during the pandemic.  

Gupta says while researchers at the Urban Institute are using this report to show how helpful and impactful this funding was for people, it’s important to remember additional support is still needed. 

“A one-time fund is not sufficient,” she says. “$15,000 is a lot of money, but it only gets you so far when you have so much debt. We have survey responses to show once the funds are exhausted, there are still pretty remarkable rates of hardship and food insecurity in this population.” 

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