Fiscal Impact of Refugees

Project Type: Emerging Focus Areas

Project Stage: Completed

The taxes paid by this group exceed support received by $21,200.

A common argument for scaling back the US refugee program is a fiscal one: that it places an undue financial burden on governments at all levels. This concern is reflected in Section 10(b) of the January 27, 2017 Executive Order from the Trump administration concerning the refugee program when it requires that the “…Secretary of State shall, within one year of the date of this order, provide a report on the estimated long-term costs of the USRAP (United States Refugee Admissions Program) at the Federal, State, and local levels.” 

These discussions of the program costs ignore entirely the benefits of the refugee program. Most refugees enter the US workforce and become taxpayers, so these fiscal benefits should be added to the equation. Estimating the net benefits of the refugee program is difficult because most current economic and demographic surveys do not distinguish refugees from other immigrants and the Federal data on refugees that does exist does not have long term outcomes.

In this brief, we outline how to identify a group with a high fraction of refugees in the American Community Survey. As we demonstrate, this group is broadly representative of all refugees resettled to the US over the 1990-2014 period. In this sample, we then examine the economic outcomes of refugees over a 20-year period. Our results suggest that most refugees who enter as children do as well as native born US residents in education attainment and earnings. We then estimate the transfers to and taxes paid by adult refugees who enter at ages 18-45 over their first 20 years in the US. Our results suggest that, in present value, the taxes paid by this group exceed support received by $21,200.

Full NBER Working Paper

Policy Brief

Key Findings Fact Sheet

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News coverage: 

These researchers just debunked an all-too-common belief about refugees, The Washington Post, 13 June 2017

Calculating the costs and benefits of refugees, The Seattle Times, 13 June 2017

Study finds refugees actually pay the US government thousands more than they get from it, Business Insider, 13 June 2017

These refugees graduate college at a higher rate than American-born students, MarketWatch, 13 June 2017

Young refugees graduate college at a higher rate than US-born students, New York Post, 13 June 2017

Refugees May Be Good For The Economy, FiveThirtyEight, 14 June 2017

Refugees in the US quickly pay more in taxes than they get in benefits, according to new research, Quartz, 15 June 2017

Refugees eventually earn their keep in America, and then some, study finds, The Buffalo News, 16 June 2017

When Your Uncle Complains About Refugees, Show Him This Study, Bustle, 20 June 2017