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Refugees Will Cost Taxpayers an Estimated $4.1 Billion in FY 2017


American taxpayers will spend more than $4.1 billion in the 2017 budget to support the 519,018 refugees who have been resettled by the federal government in the United States since October 2009, according to a cost estimate by Breitbart News.

To put that very large number in context, $4.1 billion can buy 10,677 new homes for $384,000 each, which is the average price of a new home sold in the United States in December 2016. Or it could buy 170,124 new autos for $24,100 each, which is the manufacturer’s suggested retail price for a 2017 Chevrolet Malibu.


Even if the Trump administration were to entirely shut down the flow of refugees into the United States in FY 2018 and beyond, the refugees who have already arrived in the country will cost at least another $3.5 billion in 2018, and about $2 billion to $3 billion annually thereafter until FY 2022 and beyond.

The annual $4.1 billion cost of these refugees is about eight percent of “the total annual fiscal impact of first generation [immigrants to the United States] and their dependents, averaged across 2011-2013,” which the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in September 2016, estimated “is a cost of $57.4 billion.”

That report offered this summary of the characteristics of all immigrants to the United States between 1995 and 2014:

  • The number of immigrants living in the United States increased by more than 70 percent—from 24.5 million (about 9 percent of the population) in 1995, to 42.3 million (about 13 percent of the population) in 2014; the native-born population increased about 20 percent during the same period.
  • Annual flows of lawful permanent residents have increased. During the 1980s, just under 600,000 immigrants were admitted legally (received green cards) each year; after the 1990 Immigration Act took effect, legal admissions increased to just under 800,000 per year; since 2001 legal admissions have averaged just over 1 million per year.
  • Estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States roughly doubled from about 5.7 million in 1995 to about 11.1 million in 2014.

“For the 2011-2013 period, the net cost to state and local budgets of first generation adults [who have immigrated to the United States] is, on average, about $1,600 each,” the National Academies report found.

The analysis that estimates a $4.1 billion annual cost of refugees is based on the same methodology and data used in a November 2015 study from the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which concluded that “in their first five years in the United States each refugee from the Middle East costs taxpayers $64,370—12 times what the UN estimates it costs to care for one refugee in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.”

The CIS study focused on cost estimates for refugees arriving from ten Middle Eastern countries derived from the 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees contained in the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Annual Report to Congress FY 2013  published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

The ten Middle Eastern countries included in the 2015 CIS study were Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.

Those countries accounted for 155,865 of the 519,018 refugees who have been resettled in the United States since FY 2010, according to the State Department’s interactive website.

Breitbart used the data in that same 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees for all countries who send refugees to the United States (more than one hundred countries), and applied the same methodology CIS used to determine the costs for the Middle Eastern refugees within that group.

Our analysis shows that over a five year period, American taxpayers pay $59,251 per refugee, or $5,119 less than the average Middle Eastern refugee over the same period of time.

The 2015 CIS study limited the cost estimates to five years because the 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees data was limited to refugees who had been in the country for five years or less. The survey, then, is of refugees who were resettled in the United States between FY 2009 and FY 2013.

In the Breitbart News estimate, we assumed that those costs would diminish to 50 percent of the annual average for years 1 through 5 in year 6, 25 percent in year 7, 10 percent in year 8, and zero in years 9 and beyond for each refugee.

It is reasonable to assume that overall welfare usage will decline the longer a refugee is in the country.

For instance, per the 2014 Annual Survey, 95 percent of refugees here for a year or less are in the SNAP (Food Stamps) program. By contrast, after 5 years of residence 60 percent of refugees are in the SNAP program—about 4 times the national average.

Leaving aside the inadequate rate at which refugees are leaving some welfare programs, in at least one significant welfare program the rate goes up with each year in the country.

SSI, a cash welfare program for the disabled or elderly, is used by about 14 percent of refugees in the first year of arrival. Slightly more than 29 percent of refugee families who have been here for five years have one or more members receiving SSI, a lifetime benefit in most cases. Each year of residence brought an increase in the rate of SSI usage, as Table 1 below, taken from the Office of Refuge Resettlement’s 2014 Annual Survey of Refugees (where it is listed as Table II-20) shows.

Table 1: Public Benefits Utilization (Percentage) by Year of Refugee Arrival
Years Since Actual Arrival: < 1 Year 1 Year 2 Years 3 Years 4 Years 5 Years
Arrival Year 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
TANF 40.4 24.2 13.7 10.4 11.0 17.5
Refugee Cash Assistance 43.5 29.3 2.8 1.5 1.0 5.1
SSI 14.0 19.5 21.0 25.1 22.9 29.6
General Assistance 23.7 22.6 11.2 8.5 11.1 5.7
Medicaid or RMA 78.3 75.2 57.9 49.1 54.0 44.2
SNAP 98.3 95.0 78.2 64.1 63.8 60.2
Housing Assistance 13.3 17.6 24.2 25.8 21.6 1.2

Source: Office of Refugee Resettlement 2014 Annual Survey of Refugees, Table II-20.

The November 2015 CIS study calculated a dizzying array of twelve specific federal programs which provide direct and indirect financial benefits to refugees. Table 2 below, a truncated version of the same table that appeared in the CIS study, shows the amount of money the average Middle Eastern refugee receives from each of these twelve programs over their first five years in the United States, which totals $64,370.

Table 2: Estimated Five Year Costs For Middle Eastern Refugees Resettled in the US
Cost Category Use Rate Ave. 5 Yr. Costs($)
SSI 32.1% 5,414
TANF 36.7% 2,322
SNAP 91.4% 4,615
General Assistance 17.3% 624
Public/Subsidized Housing 18.7% 1,787
WIC 20.0% 130
School Lunch 33.3% 204
Medicaid 62.2% 21,450
Without Health Insurance 12.7% 1,234
Public Education 28.0% 17,361
Subtotal for Welfare, Uninsured, and Education 55,140
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and 4,433
Migration within State Department
ORR within HHS 4,797
Total Costs 64,370

SOURCE (from the November 2015 CIS Study): Rates for SSI, TANF, SNAP, general assistance, and housing are from the 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees (ASR) and are household-based. Figures for Medicaid and lack of health insurance are also from the ASR, but reflect individual use rates. Average payments for SSI, TANF, and SNAP are from Census Bureau data. Average payments for some programs come from administrative data and other sources. Average education costs are from the National Center for Education Statistics. We estimate that 28 percent of refugees are school-age (1.12 students per household). See text for additional explanation for how estimates were made.

The Breitbart News estimate of a $59, 251 cost to taxpayers over five years for the average refugee resettled in the United States simply applies the actual use rates for each of these twelve programs found in the 2013 Annual Survey of refugees for all refugees, and applies it on a pro-rata basis to the calculations first used in Table 2 by CIS.

To illustrate this metholodogy, the average use rate for SSI among Middle Eastern refugees was 32.1 percent, according to the 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees. In the same table of that report, the average use rate for SSI among all refugees was 21.1 percent, hence, the five year cost for all refugees for SSI is estimated at $3,559, as opposed to $5,414 for Middle Eastern refugees.

Here are the use rates for all refugees by cost category used in the Breitbart News estimates, as found in the 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees: TANF, 19.0 percent. SNAP, 74.2 percent. General Assistance, 12.4 percent. Public/Subsidized Housing, 22.8 percent. WIC, 16.2 percent. School Lunch, 23.9 percent. Medicaid, 56.0 percent. Without Health Insurance, 20.2 percent. Public Education, 28.0 percent.

Table 3 summarizes the Breitbart estimate of $4.1 billion annual costs to taxpayers for resettled refugees in FY 2017:

Table 3: FY 2017 Cost to U.S. Taxpayers of Resettled Refugees

Refugee Arrival Year Refugees Cost Cost per Refugee
2017 36,205 696,373,107 19,234
2016 84,994 850,294,383 10,004
2015 69,933 699,621,586 10,004
2014 69,987 700,161,811 10,004
2013 69,926 699,551,557 10,004
2012 58,238 291,311,412 5,002
2011 56,424 141,118,815 2,501
2010 73,311 73,341,567 1,000
Total 519,018 4,151,774,239 67,754*

*The cost for the first five years is estimated at $59,251. Years 6 through 8 add an additional $8,503 in costs, bringing the total to $67,754.

The November 2015 CIS report offered a number of caveats, including the following:

  • It is worth adding that ORR often reports that most refugees are self-sufficient within five years. However, ORR defines ‘self-sufficiency’ as not receiving cash welfare. A household is still considered “self-sufficient” even if it is using any number of non-cash programs such as food stamps, public housing, or Medicaid.
  • The estimated costs reported here are conservative because they only include costs incurred by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM); costs for resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR); public education; and most welfare programs.
  • There are many public expenditures not included in this analysis, such as the cost of local social workers who help refugees sign up for assistance, English language instruction in public schools not covered by ORR, and many means-tested programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Head Start, and the Additional Child Tax Credit, for which we do not have data. Costs for basic government services such as infrastructure maintenance, law enforcement, and fire protection are also not included. There are many public expenditures not included in this analysis, such as the cost of local social workers who help refugees sign up for assistance, English language instruction in public schools not covered by ORR, and many means-tested programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Head Start, and the Additional Child Tax Credit, for which we do not have data. Costs for basic government services such as infrastructure maintenance, law enforcement, and fire protection are not included.
  • While Middle Eastern refugees in the first five years must pay some taxes to offset a fraction of the costs they create, published data from ORR indicates that more than 90 percent of households have incomes below 130 percent of poverty, which means they will pay virtually no income tax and will make very modest tax contributions of all types.

For help in sorting out that dizzying array of twelve federal programs that provide financial benefits to refugees, the November 2015 CIS report offers the following (with emphasis added):

State Department Expenditures. The State Department reports that 69,926 refugee were admitted to the United States in 2013. While the State Department also helps refugees overseas, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) within the State Department spent $310 million on resettling refugees in the United States in 2013. This means that an average of $4,433 was spent per refugee in 2013. These figures include costs for the “overseas processing of refugee applications, transportation-related services, and initial reception” and “housing, furnishings, clothing, food, medicine, employment, and social service referrals”. In this analysis we assume the amount spent by PRM per Middle Eastern refugee is the same as for refugees from the rest of the world.

Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The ORR spent nearly a billion dollars in 2013, but a significant share went to help the resettlement of unaccompanied minors and their families from Central America. Expenditures on new refugees and other related groups such as Cuban/Haitian entrants and asylees were $613,963,000 in 2013. Asylees and Cuban/Haitian entrants are essentially eligible for the same programs as refugees. Dividing this amount by the 128,000 individuals that ORR reports are covered by its programs (excluding unaccompanied minors) means that $4,797 was spend per refugee by ORR in 2013. In general, ORR only provides assistance to local communities, charities, and the refugees themselves in the first year after they arrive in the country or are awarded asylum. After a year, charities and state and local social service agencies are expected to care for them.

Refugees and Welfare. Unlike other new legal immigrants, refugees are eligible for all welfare programs upon arrival. Further, there are several short-term programs, such as Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) and Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA), for which only refugees and other humanitarian immigrants are eligible. Refugees have the most generous access to welfare programs of any population in the country. The ORR conducts the Annual Survey of Refugees each year and the 2013 survey provides a detailed profile of the socio-demographic and economic characteristics of refugees who entered the country in the prior five years, including use of many of the nation’s major welfare programs by sending region. We use information published by ORR on Middle Eastern refugees’ welfare use as the basis of our cost estimates.

Welfare Use Rates. The 2013 Annual Survey of Refugees shows the following welfare use rates for Middle Eastern refugee households: 32.1 percent receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), 36.7 percent receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), 17.3 percent receive General Assistance, 91.4 percent receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also called food stamps), and 18.7 percent live in public housing. The refugee survey also reports that 73.1 percent of individual Middle Eastern refugees are on Medicaid or Refugee Medical Assistance.

It should be kept in mind that the survey reports welfare use for all Middle Eastern refugees who arrived in the last five years, not just new arrivals. Many refugees get RMA and RCA, but then transition to Medicaid and other cash programs like TANF or SSI after the eight-month eligibility window for RMA and RCA runs out. So, for example, use of TANF is likely lower for the first eight months than the 36.7 percent reported above. To be sure, some refugees access cash welfare or Medicaid in the first eight months. But for those refugees who have been in the country for more than eight months the rate is higher than 36.7 percent. The 36.7 percent represents the use rate for all Middle Eastern refugees in the Annual Survey of Refugees who arrived in prior five years averaged together. For this reason, it is possible to estimate five-year costs for welfare programs based on published information from the survey, but it is not possible to estimate welfare costs for, say, the first year after arrival.

It should be noted that published figures from the refugee survey provide only use rates, not payment amounts received by refugees. It is necessary to estimate payments using other data sources.

Average Welfare Payments and Costs. To estimate welfare payments and costs by household we use Census Bureau data and other information. To get per-person costs for programs reported at the household level, we divide by four based on the assumption that average Middle Eastern refugee households receiving welfare consist of four people. This assumption is based on the Annual Survey of Refugees…

To estimate average payments by household for SSI, SNAP, and TANF we use the public-use files of the 2013 to 2015 Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey (ASEC CPS) collected by the Census Bureau. We match the countries listed as being part of the Middle East to the ORR list of countries from that area using the country of birth reported in the ASEC CPS.8 The ASEC CPS shows an average payment of $13,494 from SSI for immigrant households from the Middle East (refugee and non-refugee) using the program. For TANF, the same data shows an average payment of $5,061, and for SNAP it was $4,039.9 It should be noted that the ASEC CPS generally underestimates welfare use.10 Because we do not adjust for this undercount, actual average payments are likely higher than that reported here. All payment figures are rounded to nearest dollar.

To estimate payments from general assistance programs, we average state payment figures compiled by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The average annual benefit across states for this program is $2,885.12 (We assume that there is only one person per refugee household receiving this program.) For the average cost of housing programs we use the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website, which shows an average cost per unit of public or subsidized housing of $637 per month ($7,644 per year).

The Annual Survey of Refugees does not provide estimated use rates for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program or the free or subsidized school lunch program. For completeness, we include estimates for these small programs by assuming that the use rates for these two programs among Middle Eastern refugees is proportional to their use of SNAP… [T]he school lunch program and WIC add only modestly to the five-year average costs per individual. However, refugee use of these programs still would cost millions of dollars annually.

Health Insurance Coverage. Healthcare coverage is reported at the individual level in the refugee survey, not the household level. There are three types of “coverage” that create costs for taxpayers: the Refugee Medical Assistance program, Medicaid, and those refugees who are uninsured. Costs for the RMA program are covered by ORR and are included in the expenditures for that agency reported above. For the Medicaid cost we use the average costs figure reported in the Office of the Actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services annual report. In 2013, the program cost was $6,897 per enrollee. The refugee survey reports 12.7 percent of individual Middle Eastern refugees had no medical coverage in any of the previous 12 months. Based on information from the Kaiser Family Foundation on the non-elderly without health insurance, we estimate that uninsured refugees cost $1,943 on average annually.

Public Education. Data is not reported in the refugee survey on the share of Middle Eastern refugees who are in primary or secondary school. However, the refugee survey does show that 65.1 percent of all refugee households who arrived in the previous five years, not just those from the Middle East, have children under age 16. The State Department also reports that 24.1 percent of Iraqi and 33.6 percent of Afghan refugees were school-age (five to 17), the two largest groups of Middle Eastern refugees for which there are statistics in fiscal year 2013.19 Based on these figures, we estimate that 28 percent of new Middle Eastern refugees are school-age and enrolled in public school. This means that there is slightly more than one child in public school per Middle Eastern refugee household.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that average per-pupil expenditures in the United States are $12,401.20 There are certainly added expenses associated with helping refugee children in school, such as helping those who have emotional issues due having been traumatized. We do not include those costs here partly because we do not have any reliable figures for how much extra it costs to educate these children. We also do not include them because some share of these costs are paid for, at least in the first year, by ORR grants and are included above in that agency’s expenditures in the first five years.

Sources familiar with the federal refugee resettlement program who have reviewed the Breitbart News estimate say that estimate probably significantly underestimates the cost of refugees to federal and state taxpayers.

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