New York State's "Dream Act": Dollars and Sense

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on March 27, 2012

In this time of enormous government debt and spending, economic hardship for many Americans, and public distress about these circumstances, no political leader wants to go on record as exacerbating these problems. And that includes sponsors of the proposed "Dream Act" bills before the New York State legislature.

The bill's sponsors provide an analysis of the bill's costs with the following words: "FISCAL IMPLICATIONS: It is estimated that this legislation will only cost an additional $900,000 to $1 million." The "only" is a deft effort at putting a rhetorical thumb on the scale. In a time of economic difficulties, few would consider placing the word "only" before "an additional $900,000 to $1 million" as a point in favor of the expenditure.

The issue of costs is not confined to dollars, but let us spend a moment with that estimate. No information is contained regarding its origin, but figures from a like-minded advocacy program dispute even the use of "only".

The Fiscal Policy Institute bills itself as "an independent, nonpartisan" research, and education organization", but it doesn't really seem to be. It states its purpose as "improving public policies and private practices to better the economic and social conditions of all New Yorkers." However, they also work "to create a strong economy in which prosperity is broadly shared."

What might that mean?

You can gain some idea by the entries that appear on their home webpage:

In the wake of the historic agreement between the President and the Republican Congressional leadership to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, the New York City Council's Progressive Caucus has developed an interesting proposal. The proposal calls for the state of New York to impose a temporary income tax surcharge to recapture for New York the "windfall" high income New York filers will be receiving.

[A] study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities profiles the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in New York and Virginia. The experience of these two states suggests that the state fiscal assistance in the economic recovery legislation is having its intended effect: enabling states to balance their budgets with fewer cuts in public services that would harm residents and further slow the economy.

In a March 27, 2008, letter to Governor Paterson, Majority Leader Bruno, and Speaker Silver, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a compelling case that the millionaires' tax is "economically preferable" to raising regressive fees or cutting state spending.

I think it would be fair to categorize the "broadly shared" part of the Institute's self definition as involving a focus on and support of liberal redistributive economics, to the exclusion of other points of view.

So, what does this like-minded and supportive think tank say about the costs of New York States' proposed Dream Act?

Extending the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to include eligible undocumented students would increase TAP expenditures by roughly two percent. TAP provided $885 million in aid in the 2010-2011 school year. Estimates relating to undocumented immigrants are inherently inexact, but a preliminary Fiscal Policy Institute analysis concludes that extending aid to undocumented immigrant students would increase that figure by approximately $17 million, or about 2 percent of the total.

So that would be $17 million rather than the $900,000 to $1 million figure mentioned in the proposed bill.

How did they get that figure? They took a national estimate of the number of undocumented students graduating from high school each year, calculated New York's share, assumed they all came from poor families and would receive the maximum aid available, and "that two thirds of undocumented students qualifying for TAP aid would actually apply for and receive it." (p.2).

Interestingly, a proposal to provide financial aid to the state's illegal population by "the state's Education Department offered its best estimate: $627,428."

They, too, took the estimated number of undocumented high school students, and estimated New York's share. The state Education Department "assumes that 7 percent of them, or 4,550 students, graduate from high school in New York. ... Of those, 5 percent, or 227 students, will choose to attend public colleges in New York, the bill assumes. The average cost per student for the state's tuition assistance program in the last school year was $2,764. Multiply that by 227 and, voila!" (emphasis added)

Only 227 students would choose to attend public colleges in New York if the bill passed and they were able to get financial aid? The City University itself estimates that it now has 6,000 such students attending.

As the article on the New York State Regent estimate notes, "Any calculation over how much New York State would spend annually if it were to provide college tuition assistance to illegal immigrants amounts to an educated guess."

In the case of the inexplicable Regents' estimate, I'm not sure the adjective fits.

Next: New York State's "Dream Act": The Real Costs