On a campaign swing through Iowa this week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is running for president, made some remarks about immigrants and social programs, including Social Security.
Over at Fox News, heads instantly exploded. The network’s commentators grossly misinterpreted Gillibrand’s comments, which actually made eminent sense, especially for Social Security.
Whether this is a case in which, as Paul Simon wrote, “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest,” or another example of deliberate distortion is uncertain. But the Fox gloss has been ricocheting around the right-wing fever swamp like a pinball for a couple of days now, so it’s proper to give it some scrutiny.
Our analysis will have three parts. First, what Gillibrand actually said. Second, the Fox distortion of her words. Finally, a look at how she’s right about the relationship between immigration and Social Security. The bottom line is that immigration is not only good for the program, but essential for its fiscal health.
Let’s start. In Davenport, Iowa, on Tuesday, Gillibrand said this (we’ll use the clip Sean Hannity aired on his Fox show, to give him the benefit of the doubt):
“We need comprehensive immigration reform. If you are in this country now, you must have the right to pay into Social Security, to pay your taxes, to pay into the local school system, to have a pathway to citizenship. That must happen.”
To the Fox team, this was tantamount to Gillibrand’s giving away social-program benefits to undocumented immigrants.
“Let’s not only give them Grandma’s Social Security, let’s throw in a car and maybe rent for a nice home,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said to Hannity. (He was being sarcastic.) “I hope Kirsten Gillibrand has to go out and talk to people in their 70s who can barely afford food and tell them they’re going to not get their Social Security raised because we’re going to be giving it to people who broke into this country illegally.”
Added right-wing radio host Larry Elder, another member of Hannity’s panel, “How about a trust fund? How about throwing in a couple of Omaha steaks?”
By the way, this is the first I’ve heard a conservative such as Huckabee talking favorably about Social Security being raised. Is he advocating the Social Security expansion proposal put forth by congressional Democrats, which conservatives disdain, or is he just blowing smoke?
Let’s note, for the record, that Gillibrand wasn't advocating anything illegal. She made her remarks in the context of “immigration reform,” and then specified the provisions that she thought any such legal reform must include. She wasn’t advocating giving away social-program benefits, but allowing immigrants, of whatever status, to pay for those benefits openly, via payroll and income taxes, and to receive the benefits they’ve earned.
The implicit point of Gillibrand’s words is that many undocumented workers today can’t make those contributions because they have to operate in the underground economy to avoid detection; some are legally barred from receiving benefits even if they have a Social Security number because they never received a work permit in the U.S. If their legal status were somehow regularized and they were given a path to citizenship, they would join the rest of us in the legitimate economy, which would be good for everyone.
That brings us to the issue of immigrants and Social Security. Huckabee’s cocksure hypocrisy notwithstanding, immigration as it exists today benefits Social Security in two ways — one of which is no testament to good old American fair-dealing.
In 2013, Social Security chief actuary Stephen Goss and his staff estimated that as many as 1.8 million undocumented immigrants (they used the term “unauthorized immigrants”) were working and contributing to Social Security via either someone else’s or a fabricated Social Security number as of 2010. All told, 3.1 million undocumented immigrants were working and paying Social Security taxes.
Those contributions, which Goss estimated at $13 billion in 2010, mostly went into the administrative void. The workers who paid them had virtually no chance of ever collecting benefits either. In 2010, only $1 billion in benefits were paid based on unauthorized work.
In other words, undocumented workers weren’t draining Social Security’s coffers — they were fattening them.
The second way that immigration is a plus for Social Security is by expanding the workforce. This is good for the program’s fiscal health until the workers start to retire, which can be as long as 45 years or so after they start working.
We can see the effect in the annual fiscal estimates of the Social Security trustees. The trustees typically issue three 75-year projections — a best-case, worst-case and middle-of-the-road scenario. The third one is the projection that generally gets headlines each spring when the trustees report is issued.
One of the major factors distinguishing these projections from one another is their estimate of immigration; the more, the better.
In the 2018 report, for instance, the trustees based their middle estimate on net immigration averaging about 1.3 million people per year through 2095, including about 484,000 unauthorized immigrants. That’s not far from the average in recent years, according to Social Security’s estimates. This yields the familiar prediction that the program’s trust fund, or reserve, will run out in 2034, at which point benefits may have to be cut by about one-fourth.
In the worst-case scenario, labeled “high-cost” in the trustees’ report, net immigration averages only 950,000 per year, including about 356,000 net unauthorized immigrants. That results in the trust fund running out sooner, in 2030.
But in the best-case (“low-cost”) scenario, net immigration averages 1.6 million per year, including 607,000 unauthorized immigrants. That puts the trust fund solidly in the black, without changes in taxes or benefits, for at least the next 75 years.
In summary, then, for an aging country such as the United States, immigration is an economic necessity. Kirsten Gillibrand was speaking up not only for a humane and fair immigration policy, but an economically sustainable policy.