immigration not related to welfare state size

One of the more serious anti-immigration arguments is that immigration is correlated with welfare state expansion. The argument hinges on a normative evaluation of social services, but, at the least, it is a coherent argument. The issue then is empirical evidence – does immigration actually precede welfare state expansion? An op-ed in the Investor’s Business Daily summarizes research that claims that there simply isn’t any association.  Written by Alex Nowratesh and Zachary Gouchenour:

.. we show that, historically, immigrants and their descendants have not increased the size of individual welfare benefits or welfare budgets and are unlikely to do so going forward. The amount of welfare benefits is unaffected by the foreign origin or diversity of the population.

Since 1970, no pattern can be seen between the size of benefits a family of three gets under welfare programs like Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) and the level of immigration or ethnic and racial diversity.

We compared individual states because they largely decide the benefit levels for many welfare programs, and states’ levels of ethnic diversity vary tremendously along racial, ethnic and immigrant lines. For instance, in 2010 only 1.2% of West Virginia’s population was foreign-born while 27% of California’s was.

Furthermore, the amount of TANF benefits also varied by states with similar demographics. For instance, in 2010 a California family of three received $694 a month in TANF benefits. But in Texas, an identical family received only $260. The size of the Hispanic population in each state is the same: 39%.

For every California with many immigrants, considerably diverse, and a vast welfare state, there is a Florida or a Texas with similar demographics but a smaller welfare state.

In other words, there is no actual link between welfare state generosity and a state’s immigration population. So, basically economic research shows small or no effects on wages and this research shows no effect on political outcomes. The arguments against immigration are extremely flimsy.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 18, 2014 at 12:34 am

21 Responses

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  1. What about welfare state usage?


    February 18, 2014 at 1:16 am

  2. Bill Dannaher’s 1990s dissertation addressed an earlier variation of this right wing fear. Back then the idea was that the poor immigrated across states to get higher welfare benefits. The result? The poor immigrated to place with more jobs, not higher welfare payments. It is sad how much social science is about quelling people’s fear that they are paying for the “other” whoever that is this year.

    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    February 18, 2014 at 1:17 am

  3. This welfare magnets & related arguments have been debunked for years but it does not matter. They will keep popping up…It has been clear for decades that the migration debate has little to do with research, data or even reason. It is about emotion, definitions of the nation & notions of belonging…this area is a clear example of trying to do policy to somehow change a complex social reality as opposed to trying to understand a complex social reality & do policy based on a nuanced understanding of the realities on the ground…


    February 18, 2014 at 9:25 am

  4. “What about welfare state usage?”

    Ruth Gomberg-Munoz dedicates a chapter of her book titled Labor and Legality to the myth that immigrants to the US use more welfare than the native population. Definitely worth a read.


    February 18, 2014 at 11:32 am

  5. I’ll check the book out, but it doesn’t seem plausible that immigrants aren’t a net fiscal burden. I’ve seen plenty of studies that say otherwise.


    February 18, 2014 at 2:12 pm

  6. FredR: Recent studies in UK clearly show that immigrants are not a net fiscal burden.


    February 18, 2014 at 3:18 pm

  7. What about the US?


    February 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm

  8. FredR–You can find some information here… I do know it is hard for you and many to believe that it is possible that humble brown people could add more to the economy than “take away” but social life and economics are complicated…that’s why we try to do research…but like I said, this immigration debate is not about research…Sadly…


    February 18, 2014 at 4:59 pm

  9. The link you provide does not strike me as very helpful. Why, for instance, would one want to “control for income” in assessing the welfare usage of immigrants and their children? That doesn’t help us figure out whether immigrants add more to the economy (or the fiscal health of the government) than they take away.


    February 18, 2014 at 5:43 pm

  10. Well Fred, why don’t you offer the us examples of studies that show they are not contributing?


    February 18, 2014 at 6:44 pm

  11. So, I was asking about studies that examine if immigrants contribute and you send me a report on whether UNLAWFUL immigrants would contribute? Really?


    February 18, 2014 at 8:05 pm

  12. Table 6 in the link I provided offers an estimate of the net fiscal impact of lawful immigrant households:

    “Lawful immigrant households have higher fiscal deficits than non-immigrants for two reasons. The first is lower education levels; 20 percent of lawful immigrant households are headed by individuals without a high school diploma, compared to 10 percent among non-immigrant households. The second reason is high levels of welfare use. There is a popular misconception that immigrants use little welfare. The opposite is true. In fact, lawful immigrants receive the highest level of welfare benefits.”


    February 18, 2014 at 8:25 pm

  13. It seems to me that y’all are arguing two different things.

    As I read it, the OP links to research which shows that, in the aggregate, there is no relationship between the size of an immigrant population and the amount of TANF benefits measured at the state level. This is a pretty straightforward, simple to understand analysis.

    I don’t have time to read the entire Heritage Report. Generally, I’m skeptical of think tanks and when I actually invest time in reading a think tank report I often find glaring errors. Chart 9 reports nominal, instead of inflation-adjusted, growth in spending. I teach students to be wary of anyone using this approach, but this doesn’t necessary legitimize the entire report.

    The report, so far as I can tell, includes a far-broader definition of “welfare” by including social security, medicare, ACA subsidies, SNAP, WIC- though it doesn’t seem like the definition of consistent throughout the report.

    The title of the report contains a false dichotomy by indicating that the “US taxpaper” and “unlawful immigrants” are two distinct groups of people. This is not correct. Again, not enough to de-legitimize the entire report but something that should make us wary.

    On pg. 35 the authors argue that the “central issue” in the immigration debate is whether not “unlawful immigration raises the after-tax income of non-immigrant Americans”. This is more a matter of framing, by why should the “central issue” be whether or not “non-immigrant Americans” have a higher net income?

    The long-term projections, as far as I can tell, seem to rely on the assumption that by granting “amnesty” to “unlawful immigrants” their incomes or level of education won’t increase. It seems plausible to me that mass “amnesty” would likely result in increased levels of education, income and the like for previously undocumented peoples, making them less eligible for “welfare”. I’m not sure because they don’t fully explain how they calculated these figures.

    Okay that took me about 10 minutes. Maybe there is something useful in this report, but I am suspicious it’s anything that we should really rely on to any great extent.

    Silly Wabbit

    February 18, 2014 at 9:42 pm

  14. sorry should be “is consistent”

    Silly Wabbit

    February 18, 2014 at 9:43 pm

  15. “Generally, I’m skeptical of think tanks”

    Most of the research cited in this conversation, including from the OP, has come from a think tank.

    They say in the report that Chart 9 is inflation-adjusted. They try to take into account all government expenses, so certainly it’s going to be broader than what people normally mean by welfare, but a comprehensive analysis is a good thing, right? The framing stuff is interesting but not that relevant to this conversation. If you look at the appendix, they do assume an increase in earnings after amnesty.

    In any event, I’m not that interested in defending the report or getting caught up in some debate about an amnesty for undocumented immigrants, I just offered it as an example of an actual calculation of the fiscal impact of immigration.


    February 18, 2014 at 10:05 pm

  16. Because the numerous calcluations offered by researchers at universities in the above link (by Hector) don’t constitute “an actual calculation”?


    February 18, 2014 at 10:15 pm

  17. Sorry, I should have specified “net fiscal impact of immigration,” although I would also have settled for welfare state usage, which the research cited in Hector’s link dodges by adjusting for income.


    February 18, 2014 at 11:13 pm

  18. Breaking things down by state seems less useful than breaking things down by county or city. At the state level, you could fall prey to the ecological fallacy. I’m referring to the op-ed posted by Fabio, not the Heritage study here.

    As for the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, there’s a selection effect among legal immigrants who come here on work visas and then apply for a green card (which is what I did). This process first requires that one prove that one isn’t depriving a US citizen of a job, and then the process as a whole demands substantial time and money. I had to file a mandamus lawsuit, which became pretty common in the late 2000s, for my green card to eventually get approved. People who have enough money and time to deal with this process are typically not the people who apply for welfare benefits.

    Of course, work-based immigration is just one category, and off the top of my head I don’t have a clue about how that category proportionally compares to other categories.

    Chris M

    February 24, 2014 at 4:35 pm

  19. Chris–what kind of people do typically apply to what kind of welfare program? Oh, I get it, those kind of people…the welfare people…that’s some deep sociology…


    February 25, 2014 at 2:56 pm

  20. Slightly off topic, but I’m curious about the effect of immigration on inequality. The studies have generally shown that immigration doesn’t suppress domestic wages, except for maybe among the lowest skilled. However, if immigrants are disproportionately lower skilled, mathematically they would be increasing measured income inequality. Not by itself a bad thing, per say. But, it does seem plausible that support for more lower skilled immigration and concerns about measured inequality are somewhat contrasting goals. Additionally, having a larger pool of low skilled individuals will increase the competition for social welfare resources.

    To bring this back to the study, a rise in lower skilled immigration may increase the need for social welfare, regardless if it does in practice. Yes, Texas doesn’t have the welfare system of NY or California, but it is not because of less innate need.

    Of course, if the skill distribution of the immigrant population looks broadly like the native born population, these arguments are moot. But I believe it is the case that the foreign born population is more skewed on both the low and high skill end.

    Not to say that I would advocate for curtailing lower skilled immigration. But I would acknowledge there is a bit of a conflict between my own (and the political left generally) pro-immigration and anti inequality policy preferences. Which leads me to think that there are some legitimate arguments again immigration outside of simple nativism/fear of the other.


    February 26, 2014 at 11:29 pm

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