Despite critics’ complaints that refugees take undue advantage of food stamps, Medicaid and other publicly funded social services, research shows quite the opposite — that while upfront costs are certainly absorbed by taxpayers, in the long run these newcomers have a positive impact on the local economy and the community at large. A study released last summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that refugees who came to the U.S. as adults pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their first 20 years.
Paul Hagstrom, an economics professor at Hamilton College, just south of Utica in Clinton, New York, has been studying the region’s refugee population since 1999. He compiled data from the previous 10 years, comparing how long refugees remained on social programs versus the benefits they contributed to the local economy after entering the workforce.
His initial report, issued in 2000, found that the first year net cost of a single refugee household is about $4,413 ($6,381 in 2018 dollars), covering education, temporary cash assistance and Medicaid, but that those outlays decrease over time. “The primary fiscal benefits accruing from refugees stems from their participation in labor markets (and therefore consumption of local goods) and real estate markets,” the report stated. “Direct benefits are derived from sales and property taxes, while indirect benefits accrue through positive effects on local real estate markets.”
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Since then, Hagstrom has examined the even longer-term economic impact among refugees who have stayed in the community for nearly three decades and moved up the employment ladder from low-paying first jobs. “They’re now social workers, translators, healthcare professions and teachers,” he said. While Hagstrom hasn’t polled the city as a whole, “I do have the feeling that people are feeling much better about their lives here than they were 10 years ago.” Utica hasn’t completely climbed out of its economic abyss, he observed, “but there is a degree of optimism.”
“I was five when we moved to Utica,” said Ben Mehic, summoning up still-vivid memories of his family’s tearful goodbyes to relatives in Bosnia. “I had no idea what was going on,” he added in perfect English learned in public school ESL (English as a second language) classes and by watching cartoons like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants. He’s now 22, an honors graduate of Utica College, a freelance sportswriter and about to start his first year at Albany Law School. Only in the past few years has his father, who fought in the war, begun talking about the horrors he experienced, such as seeing a comrade “literally roasted over a fire.”
Soon after arriving in Utica, Mehic’s parents found a place to live and were each working two minimum-wage jobs, racking up at least 60 hours a week while also caring for Ben and his brother. The family quickly made friends with some of the thousands of other Bosnian refugees who’d resettled there around the same time, joined by expatriates from Russia and other former Soviet Union countries, Vietnam, Sudan, Somalia, Congo, China, Iraq, Myanmar and other nations. During the 1990s, the MVRCR was bringing in more than 750 refugees a year, to where they now represent more than 20 percent of the city’s population.