Liberals Need to Choose: Welfare State or Immigration

Overcoming the costs of the welfare state is the biggest challenge faced by proponents of immigration reform. The perception that immigrants use and abuse the welfare state is prevalent just about anywhere you look. Many voters and politicians believe that immigrants drain the welfare state. So the thinking goes, any increase in immigration will increase the number of people on welfare which will increase taxes for Americans. Very few people would want to pay more taxes in that scenario, so most people are skeptical of immigration.

Even Milton Friedman once famously said, “It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” Unfortunately, many people have seized on that observation to conclude that we need to restrict immigration to keep the welfare state from collapsing. They ought to look at what else he went on to say about immigration:

“It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal . . . Because as long as it’s illegal the people who come in do not qualify for welfare, they don’t qualify for Social Security, they don’t qualify for the other myriad of benefits that we pour out from our left pocket to our right pocket.”

However, Friedman need not have worried. The American welfare state is designed to aid the elderly, female, and sick. Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are young, male, and healthy. Therefore, undocumented immigrants account for a much smaller share of welfare spending than their population size would suggest. All immigrants are less likely to move to states with large welfare programs in recent years.

A 2006 RAND Corporation study, published in Health Affairs, found that in Los Angeles County immigrants, especially the undocumented, were about half as likely as natives to have chronic health conditions. Furthermore, while immigrants were almost half of L.A. County’s population, they accounted for only one third of the region’s total health care spending. A 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants had many fewer doctor and hospital visits on average than native-born Americans. Another 2007 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that low-income immigrants primarily relied upon clinics and health centers for care and used emergency rooms less often than American citizens.

The 1996 welfare reform law cut back welfare access for legal immigrants and virtually ended it for all undocumented immigrants with some exceptions for emergency care. Yet even among eligible immigrants, consumption of welfare services is lower than among citizens. More recently, 57 percent of citizens eligible for Medicaid had enrolled in the program, compared to only 30 percent of eligible immigrants.

And, contrary to the fear-mongering claims of “welfare rights” activists, these cutbacks have not harmed immigrants. On the contrary, child poverty rates decreased for immigrants relative to natives after the 1996 welfare reform. That may have had a lot to do with the growing economy, but it demonstrates that limiting immigrant welfare use does not necessarily increase poverty. It turns out that a growing or shrinking economy has more to do with poverty than the welfare state.

That also presents a simple solution to the immigration impasse: Build a wall around the welfare state. Short of the preferable goal of eliminating the American welfare state, further restricting its use by immigrants, making them wait longer before they can access it, or making sure that immigrants pay a certain amount in taxes before using it, would go a long way toward convincing Americans that immigration benefits them, as well as the newcomers.

Liberals who actually care about immigration should sacrifice the welfare state, or at least immigrant access to it, as the price for allowing more immigration. That will go a long way toward convincing American voters to allow more legal immigration.

Politically, our welfare state is incompatible with increased legal immigration. The welfare state is supposed to decrease poverty, but all too often fails to do so. The average immigrant can expect a five-fold increase in his or her wages just by moving here. If liberals are concerned about poverty, and not just the relative “poverty” that exists in America, they should realize that free emigration is the best anti-poverty tool for the world’s poor.