Undocumented Workers Are Keeping Social Security Afloat


In 2013, analysts at the Social Security Administration calculated that in 2010 undocumented immigrants had paid $13 billion into the system and were making on average $34,000 a year at the time. From 1996 to 2003, undocumented workers paid a combined $90 billion into both Social Security and Medicare.

Since 1996, immigrants who didn’t qualify to get a Social Security card numbers have been able to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) from the IRS. ITINs were originally granted to foreign citizens who were active investors in the American real estate market.

A substantial percentage of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. pay billions in taxes annually and own their own homes, according to a 50 state report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (The Study).

With an IRS ITIN number, undocumented residents can legally open a bank account and apply for mortgage financing and close on a real estate transaction.

“Contrary to a lot of myths out there, The Study shows that the undocumented pay a very significant share of their income to state and local taxes,” Meg Wiehe, a co-author of the report told CBS MoneyWatch. “They are also establishing roots here because they are committed to their communities.”

One in three of the nation’s undocumented families own a home, according to the ITEP report. States such as Idaho and New Mexico report undocumented ownership rates as high as 46 percent. Those statistics are based on research done by the Migration Policy Institute and data collected by the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey.

Expert opinion remains sharply divided on the impact of the undocumented on the U.S. economy.

While analysts at the conservative Heritage Foundation concede undocumented immigrant households do contribute tax revenue, they make the case that what they contribute is far outweighed by what their presence here in the U.S. costs taxpayers.

“In 2010, the average unlawful immigrant household received around $24,721 in government benefits and services while paying some $10,334 in taxes,” according to Robert Rector and Jason Richwine in their analysis for the Heritage Foundation.

“This generated an average annual fiscal deficit (benefits received minus taxes paid) of around $14,387 per household,” their analysis said. “This cost had to be borne by U.S. taxpayers. Amnesty would provide unlawful households with access to over 80 means-tested welfare programs, Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicare. The fiscal deficit for each household would soar.”

While the expert debate over this hot button issue has raged for years, Pew Research Center polling suggests American public opinion has shifted greatly since the early 1990s. In a 2015 poll, 45 percent of those surveyed expressed the opinion that immigrants were a net benefit for the U.S. versus 37 percent who felt their presence had a negative impact.


One of the ironies of the challenging financial future faced by the Social Security Administration is this seldom-discussed fact: Undocumented workers contribute about $13 billion per year to the Social Security Trust Fund, and only get back a small fraction, adding a bit of black ink to a balance sheet in sore need of a boost. These Social Security payments are a proxy of sorts for the potential power of these workers who now stand in the shadows of the economy.

These immigrants are often accused of creating outsize social services costs, but in this important instance the opposite is true. Undocumented workers using fake, invalid, or borrowed Social Security numbers are subject to payroll taxes but usually receive nothing back.

The extent of their contributions hints at the vast scale of the underground economy.

The chief actuary of the Social Security Administration estimates that, out of the approximately 7 million unauthorized workers currently in the US labor force, about 3 million use either false or expired Social Security numbers.

The payroll taxes paid by these unauthorized workers go into the Social Security’s “Earnings Suspense File” — in effect, money without a lawful home.

“You could say legitimately that had we not received the contributions that we have had in the past from undocumented immigrants . . . that would of course diminish our ability to be paying benefits for as long as we now can,”. Undocumented immigrants have contributed $100 billion into Social Security over the last decade.

Major immigration reform legislation would provide work authorization and Social Security numbers for an estimated 11 million immigrants working here illegally. But without changes to protect Social Security, illegal workers whose status later changes could become entitled to benefits based on jobs worked under fake and invalid Social Security numbers. Social Security could be on the hook for hundreds of billions in new liabilities according to a new  research report based on data from the Social Security Administration.

Unauthorized immigrants getting jobs show employers false or invalid Social Security numbers. When the Social Security Administration receives copies of W2s in which the name and Social Security number do not match those on Social Security’s records, they go into the Earnings Suspense File (ESF). The W2s remain on file until the earnings can be reconciled with the real worker, even if that occurs years later. Since 2000, the Social Security Administration has received about 9.3 million such W2s per year on average, representing more than $69.4 billion per year in earnings.

The earnings reported to the ESF over the past 11 years now total more than $763.5 billion, unadjusted for inflation. “Those earnings are important, because that’s what the Social Security Administration uses to determine entitlement and initial benefit amounts — not the amount of taxes paid in,” .

Although Social Security is aware of the problem, no government estimates of the potential future cost of benefits based on work under fake Social Security numbers exist.

Immigration advocates say that the taxes on earnings worked under invalid Social Security numbers help boost Social Security’s financing and that workers would have little chance of collecting benefits. “But that would change under immigration reform that provides work authorization”. “Work authorization and a valid Social Security number are the two requirements that would allow former unauthorized workers to file a claim for benefits.”

That could have significant implications for future Social Security costs because, under current law, the fraudulent use of Social Security numbers to gain employment is not penalized. “One would think that the earnings under fake Social Security numbers would not be used to calculate Social Security benefits. But to the contrary, under current policies, those earnings can be reinstated — no questions asked”.

Social Security uses all earnings to determine entitlement even for jobs worked under fake Social Security numbers. If workers have kept evidence of earnings, like copies of their W2s, tax return earnings under invalid Social Security numbers would be reinstated to the new valid number.

“Congress is considering Social Security changes that would cut the benefits of U.S. citizens and authorized workers who paid into the system under valid Social Security numbers”. “Yet our current polices reward people for the use of fraudulent Social Security numbers, undermining the financial solvency of the program”.

“You could say legitimately that had we not received the contributions that we have had in the past from undocumented immigrants . . . that would of course diminish our ability to be paying benefits for as long as we now can,”. Undocumented immigrants have contributed $100 billion into Social Security over the last decade.

(In part based on an article by Robert Hennelly in MoneyWatch February 29, 2016)

Categories: Social Security Benefits | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Undocumented Workers Are Keeping Social Security Afloat

  1. Obamanomics has still failed to achieve any normal recovery from the last recession. Compared to recoveries from the 11 other recessions since the Great Depression, Obama’s recovery is the worst in those last 75 years, measured by job creation, wage and income growth, economic growth, poverty, even inequality.

    Labor force participation declined from 65.8% in December 2008, the month before Obama was inaugurated, to 62.7% in January 2016, exactly the same as February 1978. That reduced payroll tax revenues by 3.1% compared to previously higher work rates, which will persist until the decline is reversed.

    This lower labor-force participation would cost Social Security $290 billion in lost revenue over the next 10 years, Trustees Report data indicate.

    Unemployment, reflecting those in the workforce but not working, persisted under Obama above 8% for the longest period since the Great Depression – 43 months, from February 2009, when Obama’s nearly $1 trillion “stimulus” was passed, until August 2012.

    It also persisted for the longest period since the Great Depression, with unemployment at 9% or above — 30 months, from April 2009 until September 2011.

    In the 11 previous recessions since the Great Depression, the economy recovered all jobs lost during the recession after an average of 27 months from when the recession began, which was December 2007.

    The slow recovery and above-normal extended unemployment caused Social Security to lose roughly $100 billion per year, persisting until higher employment and wage growth restores payroll to its previous long-term trend-line.
    Slow growth and fewer people working is the best way to bankrupt Social Security. So Obama’s failed economic revival policies have drilled a big hole in the future of Social Security that could mean that insolvency will only come sooner.

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