You're Good to Go, or Thoughts on Encouraging Emigration: Part I

By David North on May 29, 2012

One of the more rarely discussed elements in the whole immigration/population situation is the rate at which people, notably earlier in-migrants, leave the nation.

Obviously the departure of X persons cancels out the arrival of X persons, but the number of arrivals is usually the overwhelming focus of our attention.

My suggestion here is that more attention be paid to the encouragement of voluntary departures, in addition to the usual efforts to limit illegal arrivals and to cause forced departures of those who should not have arrived in the first place.

Whereas the attempts to stop illegal entries, and those to encourage mandatory departures are confrontations between the citizenry and the non-citizenry, the encouragement of out-migration is simply an effort to augment an existing set of forces. It is a much more friendly process, and should be subject to much less controversy.

As E. G. Ravenstein, the father of migration theory, put it in the 19th century, for every migratory flow there is a return flow (usually not of the same size); some of the people who go from country A to country B re-think what they have done and decide to return to country A. My point is that if the government of country B feels the country is over-populated, as ours certainly is, it should adopt a set of policies to encourage this sort of voluntary return migration.

Why do some migrants want to reverse the course?

There are many reasons. Some may be socially uncomfortable in Country B, others may find that the streets are not, in fact, paved with gold, and that the economic opportunities back home in Country A really are rather attractive. Some may have saved enough so that they have options about where to retire and prefer the old country, where the dollar goes a lot further. Then there is the plain old nostalgia for the old country where one's extended family lives, and for many who have been South-to-North migrants there is the weather, and the "old bones is cold bones" notion takes over. So there are many individual motives for return migration.

Meanwhile, why should Country B encourage it?

There are two sets of reasons: demographic and economic.

As to the first, any reduction in numbers is useful in and of itself, though too few of our policymakers take the demographic challenge as seriously as they should.

One of my theories is that population pressure would mean more to the nation's politicians had the capital of the United States stayed in crammed and crowded New York City — where it was in the 1790s — rather than letting the same politicians live in the spread-out, well-planned, and relatively under-populated Washington, D.C. If all the members of Congress were forced to use the New York subway system twice a day, their mindsets would be quite different.

The economic reasons for encouraging emigration are strong, but not terribly obvious. My sense — and I wish we had more data on this point — is that many of the returning migrants are either of retirement age, or were failures in the United States, thus a relatively low-income population, and low-income populations are more likely to be net users of government resources than net contributors to the public treasury.

This concept is based on both common sense, and on some data in the Social Security system.

There are a growing number of Social Security beneficiaries who receive their checks in foreign countries, a subject I have tracked for years. In 2010 there were some 548,315 individuals overseas getting Social Security checks each month, or 1.01 percent of beneficiaries. Ten or 20 years ago the expatriate mailings were about 0.80 percent of beneficiaries. While a small percentage of the 1.01 percent are native-born U.S. citizens, most of the half million are return migrants and, to a lesser extent, their dependents.

Fortunately, because the Social Security system keeps good statistics, we not only know about the number of beneficiaries in other nations, we also know the average size of their monthly checks, and how those checks compare to the national averages.

Those collecting Social Security benefits overseas have an average monthly check of $605, and those in the United States generally get one for $1,080. These data were calculated from the Social Security Administration's Annual Statistical Supplement 2011, Tables 5.J1 and 5.J2.

Now Social Security beneficiaries, as a class, have lower incomes than Americans generally (they are retired or disabled, after all), so we have half a million overseas beneficiaries who have even lower incomes than beneficiaries generally, and by a substantial margin.

One reaction to these data may well be "why are we sending all that money to people overseas, most of whom are not citizens?"

That's an understandable but quite short-sighted view of the financial situation. If you look a little further, it is clear that the arrangement certainly is a plus to U.S. taxpayers, and may be useful to the aliens as well (whose small Social Security checks in rural Mexico or Haiti, for example, will do much more for them there than they would in Los Angeles or Brooklyn.)

Bear in mind that if you receive a Social Security check overseas you could receive the same check in the United States. Further, only Social Security checks can be mailed overseas — there are no such provisions for making Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Food Stamps, or cash welfare payments in other nations. And a population receiving $605 a month on average, particularly one full of retirees and their dependents, would surely include a whole lot of people who would qualify for one or more of the income transfer programs cited above.

In short, if the United States is sending only $605 a month to these beneficiaries, the country is saving a bundle. If we stopped these checks for some reason, most of the recipients would probably take the next plane to the United States and start costing the Treasury a whole lot more.

So, encouraging reverse migration makes both demographic and economic sense to this nation, but how can we increase this phenomenon? That's the subject of a future blog.