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Health, Employment, and Disability: Implications from the Undocumented Population


  • George J. Borjas
  • David J.G. Slusky


Disability benefit recipients in the United States have nearly doubled in the past two decades, growing substantially faster than the population. It is difficult to estimate how much of this increase is explained by changes in population health, as we often lack a valid counterfactual. We propose using undocumented immigrants as the counterfactual, as they cannot currently claim benefits. Using NHIS microdata, we estimate models of disability as a function of medical conditions for both the legal and undocumented populations. The relationship between health and disability is far stronger for those with legal status than it is for those who are undocumented. We find that almost all of the difference in disability trends between the two populations can be explained by different responses to underlying health impairments.

Suggested Citation

  • George J. Borjas & David J.G. Slusky, 2018. "Health, Employment, and Disability: Implications from the Undocumented Population," NBER Working Papers 24504, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:24504
    Note: HE LS

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Alexander Gelber & Timothy J. Moore & Alexander Strand, 2017. "The Effect of Disability Insurance Payments on Beneficiaries' Earnings," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 9(3), pages 229-261, August.
    2. Akbulut-Yuksel, Mevlude & Kugler, Adriana, 2016. "Intergenerational Persistence of Health in the U.S.: Do Immigrants Get Healthier as They Assimilate?," IZA Discussion Papers 9728, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    3. Borjas, George J., 2017. "The Earnings of Undocumented Immigrants," Working Paper Series rwp17-013, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
    4. Borjas, George J., 2017. "The labor supply of undocumented immigrants," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 46(C), pages 1-13.
    5. Andreas I. Mueller & Jesse Rothstein & Till M. von Wachter, 2016. "Unemployment Insurance and Disability Insurance in the Great Recession," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 34(S1), pages 445-475.
    6. Johnston, David W. & Propper, Carol & Shields, Michael A., 2009. "Comparing subjective and objective measures of health: Evidence from hypertension for the income/health gradient," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 28(3), pages 540-552, May.
    7. Oaxaca, Ronald, 1973. "Male-Female Wage Differentials in Urban Labor Markets," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 14(3), pages 693-709, October.
    8. Alan S. Blinder, 1973. "Wage Discrimination: Reduced Form and Structural Estimates," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 8(4), pages 436-455.
    9. Robert Warren & Jeffrey Passel, 1987. "A Count of the Uncountable: Estimates of Undocumented Aliens Counted in the 1980 United States Census," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 24(3), pages 375-393, August.
    10. David H. Autor & Mark G. Duggan, 2006. "The Growth in the Social Security Disability Rolls: A Fiscal Crisis Unfolding," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 20(3), pages 71-96, Summer.
    11. Jeffrey B. Liebman, 2015. "Understanding the Increase in Disability Insurance Benefit Receipt in the United States," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 29(2), pages 123-150, Spring.
    12. George J. Borjas, 2017. "The Earnings of Undocumented Immigrants," NBER Working Papers 23236, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. Giuntella, Osea & Stella, Luca, 2016. "The Acceleration of Immigrant Unhealthy Assimilation," IZA Discussion Papers 9664, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
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    Cited by:

    1. De Brouwer, Octave & Leduc, Elisabeth & Tojerow, Ilan, 2019. "The Unexpected Consequences of Job Search Monitoring: Disability Instead of Employment?," IZA Discussion Papers 12304, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    2. Furtado, Delia & Papps, Kerry L. & Theodoropoulos, Nikolaos, 2019. "Who Goes on Disability When Times Are Tough? The Role of Social Costs of Take-Up Among Immigrants," IZA Discussion Papers 12097, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    3. Furtado, Delia & Papps, Kerry L. & Theodoropoulos, Nikolaos, 2020. "Who Goes on Disability when Times are Tough? The Role of Work Norms among Immigrants," GLO Discussion Paper Series 590, Global Labor Organization (GLO).

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • I12 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Health Behavior
    • I18 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Government Policy; Regulation; Public Health
    • J61 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Mobility, Unemployment, Vacancies, and Immigrant Workers - - - Geographic Labor Mobility; Immigrant Workers

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