Are Roads Worth More Than Refugees?

Did you know that every U.S. household currently pays more than $1,100 per year in taxes related to road construction, a statistic that does not include gas taxes and individual driving costs? In contrast, every U.S. household pays $10 annually for refugees coming to America, according to an OECD study. It may be important to keep those figures in mind at a time when 65.3 million people on earth are considered refugees (that is one out of every 113 people), and one out of three people living in Lebanon are refugees from the wars in Iraq, Palestine and Syria.

USCCB resettlement staff had an opportunity to get some additional perspective during a Nov. 15, 2016 brown bag presentation with Dr. Williams Evans of the University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO). Dr. Evans and his co-presenter Danny Fitzgerald shared research findings on refugees’ long-term social and economic outcomes. For this study, the LEO team drew data from the 2010-2014 American Community Survey. The study results will be featured in a three-part series on the MRS refugee research blog. So please stay tuned.

On the issue of resettlement cost, Dr. Evans arrived at an average number similar to the OECD figure. He estimated the 2014 cost of resettlement was $9,680 per refugee, which translates to less than six dollars per U.S. household. LEO found that it took refugees nine years to become net contributors to the society. After nine years in the U.S. refugees’ tax dollar contributions increased to the degree that they completely offset and eventually far outpaced social insurance costs (food stamps, welfare payments, social security, Medicaid and Medicare).

It is important to note that Dr. Evans’ calculation of resettlement costs does not factor in volunteer hours and in-kind contributions. Other research has underscored the significance of in-kind contributions in resettlement. For example, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service’s 2008 study, “The Real Cost of Welcome. A Financial Analysis of Local Refugee Reception,” found that community resources cover 30 percent of resettlement expenses. If you applied the LIRS calculation to the LEO study, the real cost of resettlement decreases to $6,453 per refugee (from $9,680). And finally, refugees find work in the U.S. far earlier than in other countries and start businesses at an even quicker pace than the American-born. One study found that 90 percent of Somali refugees in the United Kingdom were unemployed, while only 26% of Somali refugees in the U.S. didn’t have a job.

The LEO research project involved looking at roughly 18,000 refugees who entered the country between 1990 and 2014. Fitzgerald combed through census data to locate people entering the country as refugees, then tracked their employment, education, dependence on social programs, tax history and other factors.

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