As the U.S. immigration policy debate rages on, claims continue that more lenient admissions policies, including amnesty policies that would clearly strengthen the magnet for more illegal immigration, are urgently needed to fix the nation’s demographically imperiled pension finances.
One of the latest examples comes from the left-leaning news and opinion site Vox.com:
“Economic estimates show that immigration would help save the Social Security system. Not just legal immigration — illegal immigration too.”
“Undocumented immigrants and immigrants with legal status pay billions of dollars each year into the Social Security system through payroll taxes. Based on estimates in the trustees report, the more immigrants that come in, the longer the Social Security system will stay solvent. That’s because immigrants, on average, are a lot younger than the overall US population, so their retirement is far off. And undocumented immigrants pay for Social Security, but they’re not allowed to get benefits.”
I’ve previously debunked such claims about illegal immigrants by showing both that their contribution to the national tax haul currently is much less a drop in the national bucket, and that it’s likely to stay tiny because social mobility in America has slowed to a crawl – meaning in particular that prospects keep getting bleaker for major income ladder climbing by the kinds of low-skill, poorly educated workers who dominate illegal immigrants’ ranks.
So it’s important to report that some recent data from the Census Bureau strongly confirms that mobility point – along with suggesting that one of the best ways to give illegal immigrants a leg up is to cut back their numbers seriously.
The statistics come in the form of figures kept by the Bureau on the “detailed social and economic statistics for age groups as well as racial groups that include the Hispanic, black or African-American, Asian and foreign-born populations.” These include numbers on poverty rates for native-born Americans, naturalized foreign-born citizens, and non-citizens (who of course by definition are foreign born). The latter aren’t necessarily illegals – for a variety of reasons, many legal immigrants never apply for citizenship, or don’t do so right away. But the non-citizen group would include all the illegals.
It seemed to me that the best way to tell if this non-citizen group and its illegal members are making noteworthy economic progress would be to focus on those in the 18-64-year old age group – i.e., those overwhelmingly likeliest to be employed, or seeking employment. The data go back to 1995 and up to 2015, so changes over a respectable period of time can be assessed. Below are the main findings, which also compare how poverty rates for non-citizens of working age have fared versus their native-born and naturalized citizen counterparts.
Year native born 18-64s naturalized 18-64s non-citizen 18-64s
1995 10.8% 8.4% 25.7%
2001 8.8% 8.1% 17.8%
2007 10.0% 8.5% 19.9%
2009 11.9% 10.1% 24.2%
2015 9.7% 8.9% 17.9%
The most obvious takeaway is that the the poverty rates for the non-citizens of working age have remained much higher than those for the rest of the population of working age. And in absolute terms, for a high-income country like the United States, they’re exceedingly high.
These numbers also show that the poverty rate for the working age non-citizens has declined considerably faster than that for native-born Americans (-30.35 percent vs -10.19 percent). And that 30-plus percent drop contrasts especially strikingly with the change in the naturalized citizen rate – which actually rose by 5.95 percent.
So doesn’t that latter trend strongly suggest that illegal workers do keep increasing earnings significantly? Not so fast. First, remember that the performance of the illegals is undoubtedly worse than that of non-citizens as a whole. After all, illegals don’t have a heck of a lot of bargaining power at the workplace. Second, as RealityChek regulars know, the most accurate read on economic trends comes from comparing similar phases of the economic cycle – e.g., recessions with recessions, expansions with expansions.
And in that vein, what the data underscore to me is that the biggest drop in the working age non-citizens’ poverty rate came during the last half of the strongest and longest American expansion to date – that which lasted from 1991 to 2001. Between 1995 and 2001, it fell by 30.73 percent. During the bubble era expansion of 2001-2007, the non-citizen poverty rate actually increased (by 11.80 percent). Their fortunes improved notably during the first six years of the current expansion – decreasing by 26.03 percent. But that slowdown was more modest than that of the 1991-2001 recovery.
It’s certainly possible that since then, the rate has fallen further – and that this expansion will start speeding up, leading to additional improvement. But given the length of this recovery (more than nine years), that would be surprising – at least for any prolonged period.
Further improvement, however, could indeed be on the horizon because during the current recovery years, when that 26 percent fall in the poverty rate took place, the illegal immigrant population shrunk – from 11.5 million to 11.0 million, according to the pretty authoritative Pew Research Center. I say “pretty authoritative” because measuring activity related to illegality is always difficult. But these Pew data strike me as reasonable because all else equal, whenever the supply of anything (like illegal immigrant workers) decreases, its value (earnings) tends to increase.
So if the Trump administration can keep illegal inflows down, illegal workers’ poverty rates seem likely to fall further because of rising pay. But ironically, this development would also weaken the case that illegals will prove to be the U.S. economy’s financial salvation. For their incomes will remain very low in absolute terms by any reasonable measure, and their numbers will be smaller than their supporters seem to assume.
Moreover, the less illegal immigrant competition they face, again all else equal, the higher the pay of the much greater population of native-born workers will rise. Legal immigrants stand to benefit as well.
Something to keep in mind when you next hear some Open Borders enthusiast shout, “Abolish ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]!”