Saving the Elderly Safety Net

by Linda Chavez

Here’s a thought: If Medicare pays your medical bills, thank an immigrant for making it possible. For all the loose talk about how immigrants burden our social welfare system, it turns out that when it comes to Medicare, immigrants contribute far more to the system than they take out.

A new study by Harvard Medical School shows that between 2002 and 2009, immigrants (including those in the country illegally) contributed $115 billion more to the Medicare system than they received in benefits, while the American-born received $28 billion more than they contributed. If not for immigrants, Medicare would be in bigger trouble than it already is. And the same is true for Social Security, to which immigrants contribute a surplus of about $12 billion a year.

The most important reason why immigrants contribute more to the system than they receive is that immigrants, on average, are younger than the native-born population. Hispanics, who comprise the largest group of immigrants, have a median age of 27 years, compared to 42 among non-Hispanic whites. Since both Medicare and Social Security funding derives from those still in the workforce, while benefits accrue to older people, the younger age-structure of the immigrant population means more are paying in than are receiving benefits.

Immigrants also tend to be healthier than the American-born — at all ages. Researchers have long debated why, but the answer seems to be in lifestyle. Immigrants smoke and drink less, take fewer illicit drugs and eat healthier — at least in their early years in the U.S. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of assimilation is that the longer they’re in America the more likely immigrants are to adopt unhealthy habits, including overeating. And their U.S.-born children may lose the immigrant health advantage.

Critics are quick to point out that whatever temporary benefits immigrants provide in payments into the elderly social welfare safety net, they will become a burden as they age. But at all ages, immigrants appear to use the health care system less than the native-born population.

Dr. Leighton Ku, director of the Center for Health Policy Research at The George Washington University, told The New York Times recently that his research shows that immigrants’ individual medical costs are from 14 percent to 20 percent less than those of the native population, even after controlling for lack of insurance coverage and emergency room visits.

But the critics are right about one thing. If anti-immigration organizations get their way and reduce immigration — or halt it altogether, as groups that favor zero net immigration to the U.S. propose — the costs of caring for elderly immigrants already in the U.S. will become a burden. In fact, a moratorium on immigration would jeopardize the whole safety net for the elderly, both foreign- and native-born.

Despite the widespread and fervent belief of many Social Security and Medicare recipients that they are simply drawing on money they’ve paid in, nothing could be further from the truth. Young working people pay for the safety net that cares for the current elderly. The retired receive far more in benefits, on average, than they paid in during their working years — and the only reason the system doesn’t collapse is that we now have more people working than drawing benefits. But without immigration, our working population will shrink. Reversing the ratios of the working and the retired populations would spell disaster for future elderly Americans.

The Senate will take up an immigration overhaul in June. Let’s hope that senators who are opposed to bipartisan legislation passed by the Judiciary Committee will think twice before making arguments about the “burden” of immigration.

Today, as in the past, immigrants renew the American population by adding millions of newcomers with strong work ethics. But they are also responsible for helping America’s elderly. Without immigrants’ surplus contributions to Medicare and Social Security, those same senators would face the choice of raising taxes or cutting benefits, which is a lot more unpopular, not to mention worse for the country, than letting immigrants come to the United States or remain here to work.


Linda Chavez is the author of “An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.” To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at