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US-Born Workers Receive Disability Benefits More Often
USAgNet - 11/08/2017

No matter where they came from, people born outside the United States but working here are much less likely to receive Social Security Disability Insurance benefits than those born in the U.S. or its territories.

Foreign-born adults, according to a study published in the December issue of the journal Demography, are less likely to report health-related impediments to working, to be covered by work-disability insurance, and to apply for disability benefits.

The researchers used data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to determine the prevalence of work disability and records from the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program to determine the incidence. They found that over the ten-year period from 2001 to 2010, about 6.56 people per thousand born in the U.S. received benefits through the SSDI program.

Foreign-born individuals make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, and a somewhat larger proportion (16.7 percent) of the U.S. labor force. They are, however, significantly less likely to report work disability and to receive work disability benefits. The researchers found that only 4.16 per thousand foreign-born men and 4.36 per thousand foreign-born women were approved for benefits.

There were wide variations depending on where foreign workers were born. The lowest disability rate was 2.28 per thousand for immigrants from East Asia. The highest, although considerably lower than the U.S. rate, was 5.66 per thousand for those who came from the Caribbean.

"Clearly," the authors wrote, "the disability insurance program is one in which the insured foreign-born are drawing benefits at a lesser rate than the native-born insured under the program."

During the 2016 presidential election, however, immigrants were often depicted as a serious problem. Public debates about immigration policy, as well as social safety net programs, became increasingly contentious.

"The political discussions about immigration became more prominent just as we were finishing up this research project," said the study's senior author, Diane Lauderdale, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Chicago. "We heard opinions about the extent to which immigrants were a burden on, or a benefit to, the economy, often unsupported by data."

Although a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on "The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration" concluded that immigration "has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S," the authors noted that "some scholars and many in the general public remain skeptical, and questions persist as to whether public spending on the foreign-born is proportionate to their tax contributions."

A previous study on work disability, published in 2011 but based on the ten-year period from the Immigration Act of 1990 to the 2000 census, concluded that "immigrants had a higher prevalence of self-reported work disability" than their native-born counterparts.

The authors of the current exhaustive study used updated survey data as well as comprehensive administrative records from the major federal program that provides assistance to those with work disability. They found that the work disability findings from the 2011 article were flawed: the core question about work disability appears frequently to have been misunderstood by respondents with limited English language skills.

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