Factcheck: Meme falsely compares benefits for refugees, senior citizens
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Factcheck: Meme falsely compares benefits for refugees, senior citizens

Quick Take

A popular meme falsely claims that each month refugees in the United States receive over three times more money in “federal assistance” than Social Security beneficiaries. That’s a new version of an old claim we debunked over a decade ago.


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A bogus comparison of benefits for “illegal refugees” and Social Security recipients is stirring up anger online.

The claim, which has been shared as a meme, says: “Insanity is when illegal refugees get $3,874 a month in federal assistance while Social Security checks average $1,200 a month.”

That sounds a lot like an old falsehood that started in Canada in 2004, and later migrated to the U.S. We wrote about it first in 2007, then again in 2009, and again in 2010.

This most recent version isn’t true, either, and it also may have borrowed from another Canadian viral claim. The figure this meme uses for refugee benefits is the same one used in what Snopes called a “mostly false” Facebook posting about benefits in Canada.

To start with, there are no “illegal refugees.” Under U.S. law, refugee status is given to those who are admitted to the country after demonstrating that they have fled persecution. The number of refugees that the U.S. takes in each year is capped by the president under the Refugee Act of 1980 — for fiscal year 2019, the cap is set at 30,000, which is the lowest it has been since 1980.

While refugees are eligible to apply for some federally funded programs, not all of them do, a spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families told us.

An internal report from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 estimated that the annual per refugee cost was $7,134 for federal, state and local governments combined between 2005 and 2014. Programs funded by the federal government were 74 percent of that total, so, on average, the federal government spent $440 per refugee, per month, during the study’s time period.

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That’s a lot less than the nearly $3,900 a month the meme claims — which would work out to be about $47,000 per year.

Also, many of the programs that refugees are eligible to apply for are temporary. Two of the primary assistance programs available to refugees are Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and Refugee Cash Assistance, or RCA.

TANF is a program for needy families that is funded jointly by federal and state governments and is administered by states. It is available to refugee families for their first five years in the U.S. RCA is a federally funded program that is also administered by states, and is available to refugees who do not qualify for TANF. It is available for the first eight months that a refugee is in the country.

The amount of money given out under each program varies widely depending on the state. For example, monthly TANF payments for a single-parent family of three ranged from $170 to $1,021 in 2017.

As for the second part of the claim in the meme — “Social Security checks average $1,200 a month” — that’s close to the correct figure. The average monthly Social Security benefit for all retired workers in 2019 is $1,461, according to the Social Security Administration.

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