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Within 7 years, refugees are self-sufficient and contributing to the U.S., on average

- August 15, 2017

On June 20, World Refugee Day, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney declared that his city would “be a sanctuary for people who need protection.” New York Mayor Bill De Blasio similarly declared his support for refugees back in January when he said, “In this great city of immigrants we will remain true to our values and always welcome all who yearn to breathe free.”

Cities like these have put themselves squarely in opposition to the Trump administration’s stance against immigrants and refugees. Most recently, President Trump’s March 6 executive order suspended the U.S. refugee program for 120 days, and called for refugee admissions to be capped at 50,000 per year — a significant drop from the nearly 85,000 refugees admitted in fiscal 2016.

The Trump administration argues that these restrictions are necessary for national security, while others claim that refugees are a financial burden, locally and nationally. Opponents like Kenney and De Blasio counter that the United States has a humanitarian tradition of welcoming people fleeing war and conflict, and that the resulting diversity enriches urban areas, both culturally and economically.

Who’s right? How well do refugees integrate into local U.S. communities? Are they an economic burden or boon? We examined these questions for refugees resettled in the city of Philadelphia between 2000 and 2015.

How we did our research

A little more than 7,300 refugees arrived in the city from 2000 to 2015. Though people fleeing the civil war in Syria have dominated recent news, Philadelphia’s refugees have come from all over. The largest number of refugees arrived from Bhutan, closely followed by Liberia, Burma and Iraq. Large groups of refugees also come from Ukraine, Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, Sudan, Eritrea and Sierra Leone.

Congress receives an annual report about recently resettled individuals, but no specific mechanism tracks their progress over a longer period. A few researchers have begun to use a relatively new and effective methodology to identify refugee populations in national census data. This lets us evaluate long-term economic resettlement outcomes such as median incomes and government program use. In our research we adapt this method to identify local refugee populations in particular cities.

Our data source is the American Community Survey, an annual survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Respondents from consecutive ACS surveys are usually aggregated to increase the sample size and develop more reliable multiyear estimates. We pooled together responses from 2007 to 2015. ACS includes information on country of birth and — if that’s not the United States — year of entry for all those surveyed. It does not distinguish refugees from other immigrants. As previous studies have done, we use the combination of country of birth and year of entry to determine which immigrants were likely refugees. To find those combinations for Philadelphia, we used the State Department’s detailed refugee entry data to identify the 10 most common countries from which Philadelphia’s refugees originate.

We impute refugee status to everyone from those 10 countries in years when the refugee entry numbers represent more than half of the ACS total entry numbers. For example, if an ACS respondent from Iraq migrated in 2005, they are only assigned refugee status if, for 2005, the ratio of total refugee entry into Philadelphia from Iraq to the ACS total weighted Iraqi-origin entrants to Philadelphia is greater than 50 percent. This way we are more confident that, in the countries and years selected, a majority of entrants are refugees.

Here’s what we found

1. Household income

We compared those identified as refugees to all the other Philadelphians in the ACS data. We found that the median household income estimate for refugees resettled in the area is $37,574 — which is close to Philadelphia’s ACS median household income estimate of $38,253. If we look just at refugees resettled at least seven years earlier, median household income estimates jump to $46,126. To put these numbers in perspective, the median refugee household includes three people — which is comparable to all Philadelphia households, where it’s 2.5.

2. Food stamps

About 36 percent of the refugees identified in the ACS data reported using food stamps. However, the highest use is among new entrants just beginning to rebuild their lives. Among refugees resettled seven or more years ago, only about 25 percent were using food stamps — the same rate as all Philadelphians in the comparable ACS data.

3. Employment

Refugees’ unemployment rates were 12 percent, notably higher than the overall Philadelphia ACS rate of 8 percent. However, Philadelphia refugees’ labor force participation rate — those actively looking for work and those who are currently working — was a high 66 percent. In comparison the labor force participation rate for all Philadelphians for the same ACS years is 59 percent. Apparently, many refugees actively look for work despite higher barriers to employment, arriving as they have in a place where they have few local networks.

4. Language

It can be hard to integrate into American life without being fluent in English. Among recent entrants, only 19 percent say they can speak English “well” or “very well.” However, that improves significantly over time. Nearly 76 percent of refugees resettled seven or more years earlier say they can speak English well.

Our findings suggest that within a handful of years after arriving, quite a few refugees are doing as well as or perhaps better than the average Philadelphian, according to basic economic indicators. Within seven years, refugees reach a higher median income and lower use of food stamps than their neighbors. They develop language competency fairly quickly, and remain active in the workforce, buoying the local economy.

Though solvency cannot be the only measure of successful resettlement, these findings do suggest that Philadelphia’s mayor, among others, are right to suggest that welcoming diverse and vulnerable groups of people may in the end benefit the city.

Ramya M. Vijaya is a professor of economics at Stockton University, New Jersey, and co-author of Indian Immigrant Women and Work (Routledge, 2017).

Monica Miller and David Fletcher are student research assistants at Stockton University.