Economic Well-Being and Welfare Program Participation among Older Immigrants in the United States

By Burr, Jeffrey A.; Gerst, Kerstin et al. | Generations, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Economic Well-Being and Welfare Program Participation among Older Immigrants in the United States


Burr, Jeffrey A., Gerst, Kerstin, Kwan, Ngai, Mutchler, Jan E., Generations


The two major demo- graphic trends shaping the future of the United States- the unpreceden- ted aging of the popula- tion and historic increases in immigration- will do so in numerous ways, some of which are pre- dictable and others unknown. Between 1970 and 2000, approximately 1.2 million of the nearly 24 million immigrants who came to the United States were age 65 and older (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001; He, 2002). Other older immi- grants currently living in the US. came early in the life course, either as children or as working- age adults. The well-being of these older immi- grants is influenced by many factors, including their health and functional status, social rela- tionships, and life satisfaction. Another area that greatly affects the quality of life of older immi- grants-in addition to having a major effect on numerous aspects of the U.S. economy and on government programs and services intended to support older people- is the economic status of older immigrants. Yet, this component of their lives has not received as much attention as some of the other areas (see Angel, 2003; Phua, McNaIIy, and Park, 2007). This article provides an overview of the economic status of older immigrants, focusing on Latin American and Asian groups because they currently represent the largest share of older immigrants in the United States.

BACKGROUND

Many observers assume the economic wellbeing, or lack thereof, of older adults as a group is not as substantial a problem now as it was prior to the 1970s, an assumption based in part on the perception that legislation establishing Social Security cost-of-living indexing and the introduction of Medicare have alleviated earlier concerns (Gerst and Mutchler, forthcoming). At minimum, the larger picture for elders is deemed no worse than it is for the general population. However, among some minority groups and women, including many older immigrants, the capacity to meet life's economic needs remains a challenge. Further, most research on U.S. immigrants focuses on working-age populations (Borjas, 2002), and to a somewhat smaller extent, the children of these immigrants (second-generation immigrants). Not enough attention has been paid to the economic status of older immigrants, especially given current demographic trends.

Factors that affect the economic well-being of older immigrants include country of origin, age at immigration (Hu, 1998), education (Hao and Kawano, 2001), neighborhood and community context (Hao and Kawano, 2001) and citizenship status (Van Hook, Brown, and Bean, 2006). Each of these factors works independently and jointly with each other to frame the older immigrant's capacity to meet expenses associated with housing, nutrition, medical, and other needs.

Country of origin affects all aspects of wellbeing for older immigrants, especially for those who immigrate in adulthood. Immigrants from places that are less economically developed are less likely to have been exposed to education systems that prepare them for employment in occupations offering private pensions, and to earn salaries or wages that allow them to accumulate savings for their retirement years. Because U.S. immigration law distinguishes among immigrants along three dimensionseconomic characteristics, family connections, and refugee status- country of origin plays a role as well. It is important to note that immigration law treats refugees differently compared to other types of immigrants. Refugees are provided access to many welfare and other support programs that are not provided to non-refugee immigrants (Van Hook and Bean, 1999). Citizenship status also relates positively to economic well-being and eligibility for welfare programs (see below).

Age at immigration varies greatly across immigrants, irrespective of their country of origin (Hu, 1998). People who immigrate early in the life course have time to adapt to the American culture, especially the English language, and thus improve the range of occupations they may be able to obtain, which in turn improves their ability to save for retirement. …

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