Linda Chavez
Here's a thought: If Medicare pays your medical bills, thank an immigrant for making it possible. For all the loose talk about how immigrants burden our social welfare system, it turns out that when it comes to Medicare, immigrants contribute far more to the system than they take out.

A new study by Harvard Medical School shows that between 2002 and 2009, immigrants (including those in the country illegally) contributed $115 billion more to the Medicare system than they received in benefits, while the American-born received $28 billion more than they contributed. If not for immigrants, Medicare would be in bigger trouble than it already is. And the same is true for Social Security, to which immigrants contribute a surplus of about $12 billion a year.

The most important reason why immigrants contribute more to the system than they receive is that immigrants, on average, are younger than the native-born population. Hispanics, who comprise the largest group of immigrants, have a median age of 27 years, compared to 42 among non-Hispanic whites. Since both Medicare and Social Security funding derives from those still in the workforce, while benefits accrue to older people, the younger age-structure of the immigrant population means more are paying in than are receiving benefits.

Immigrants also tend to be healthier than the American-born -- at all ages. Researchers have long debated why, but the answer seems to be in lifestyle. Immigrants smoke and drink less, take fewer illicit drugs and eat healthier -- at least in their early years in the U.S. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of assimilation is that the longer they're in America the more likely immigrants are to adopt unhealthy habits, including overeating. And their U.S.-born children may lose the immigrant health advantage.

Critics are quick to point out that whatever temporary benefits immigrants provide in payments into the elderly social welfare safety net, they will become a burden as they age. But at all ages, immigrants appear to use the health care system less than the native-born population. Dr. Leighton Ku, director of the Center for Health Policy Research at The George Washington University, told The New York Times recently that his research shows that immigrants' individual medical costs are from 14 percent to 20 percent less than those of the native population, even after controlling for lack of insurance coverage and emergency room visits.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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