Usually We Write about Immigration — This Is about Emigration and Why It Should Be Increased

Social Security benefits could encourage emigration

By David North on November 30, 2023

My colleagues and I routinely write about immigration to the U.S.; this posting is about emigration from the U.S. and how it should be increased to: 1) save taxpayers’ money; and 2) to prevent over-use of our aging infrastructure.

We worry, understandably, about the millions of illegal aliens pouring over our southern border — what if we could encourage a substantial flow the other way? There is a way that such a movement could be encouraged, all voluntarily, without deporting anyone. More on that later.

First, let’s look at the numbers. Oddly, in this nation, but not in some others such as the United Kingdom, we do not bother to count out-migration. And because we do not count it, in a sense, it does not count. We never discuss it, at least partly because we, as a nation, do not recognize its existence. A baseball game would not be very interesting if no one kept score.

One part of the population does, in fact, emigrate and is counted. These are persons, largely citizens, who 1) are Social Security beneficiaries; 2) have left the country; and 3) are counted annually. Since they are getting benefit checks from the Social Security Administration, and since the SSA feels obliged to report on its activities in great detail, we know something about this outward movement of part of our population, mostly, but not all, elderly. Our source is the SSA’s “Annual Statistical Supplement, 2023”, more specifically its Table 5.J1.

So how many people collect their benefits abroad? Turning back the clock a bit, we find these numbers for December 1999 as compared to those of 2021 and 2022:

  • 1999: 382,740
  • 2021: 695,086
  • 2022: 700,808

Since the total number of beneficiaries of the program has been growing faster than that of the overseas ones, the percentage of checks being sent abroad has dropped over the years from 0.85 percent in 1999 to 0.70 percent in 2022. This was, in 1999, a group collecting less benefits, as opposed to the general group of Social Security beneficiaries, since the average monthly check that year was $804 for all of them and $496 for those overseas. Those two numbers in December 2022 were $1,825 and $807. (This from Table 5.J6 of the cited source.)

So this population is getting much smaller checks than Americans generally; this may relate, in part, to lower average incomes, but my suspicion is that it relates just as much to fewer years in covered employment in the States. The size of one’s Social Security check relates, among other things, to two variables: average income over the years, and the number of years of covered income, and I suspect that many receiving checks overseas spent only part of their working years in the U.S. Generally, one must have 10 years of covered employment, or 40 quarters in SSA lingo, to get a Social Security check; one also must either be disabled or over the age of 62 (if a worker) to collect.

Background. Whereas the departure of $7.3 billion a year in Social Security checks (the latest number) might be seen as a blow to our economy, something else should be noted.

More than 700,000 people collecting Social Security benefits overseas are not getting any of these benefits for which they might be eligible were they still in the States:

  • Medicare
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Food Stamps
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Subsidized housing and, in few cases
  • WIC (women, infants and children)

One needs to be a resident of the U.S., not necessarily a citizen, to collect these benefits. So by definition we are not shouldering any of these costs for the departed 700,000. I do not have an estimate of how much we save by their absence, but it must be much more than the checks we send them now, which are now running at $610 million a month.

Policy Proposal. Currently, except for a six-month grace period, one needs to be a citizen to collect Social Security abroad. Were the citizenship requirement to be dropped, it would encourage many aliens to return to their homelands in their retirement years, thus (among other things) saving a lot of tax dollars for the rest of us.

This would require legislation, which would be a struggle, for some would only see the departure of Social Security dollars to distant lands, while others would say that we are not supporting a group of aliens in the proper way. But it’s worth thinking about.