While planning for retirement is an important concern for everyone, access to the economic resources needed for retirement is distributed unequally. One often overlooked demographic of older adults who face unequal risks in this area is undocumented workers who are aging in place in the communities they have called home for years or decades.
Within the umbrella category of older immigrants, individuals who are undocumented face unique economic hardships. Throughout their working life and into older age, they face precarious work without the full range of protections that other workers have. Entering older age without access to many of the supports that their peers rely upon, from Social Security to SNAP to Medicaid, results in financial uncertainty that only increases as they age.
In recent years, awareness of this issue has increased due to state-level expansions of income benefits for undocumented immigrants, which have highlighted the needs of this demographic, while pointing the way to a more equitable system of public benefits.
Higher Poverty Rates, No Safety Net
While immigrants have higher poverty rates than individuals born in the United States (14% versus 12%, in 2019 numbers), undocumented immigrants have significantly higher poverty rates than both groups (26%, in 2018 numbers). The estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States include many low-wage workers, including individuals in physically demanding jobs that are difficult to sustain into older age, such as providing home care for children, people with disabilities and older adults.
One study of the demographics of domestic workers in 14 metropolitan areas found that the workers were nearly all women, nearly half were ages 45 or older, and nearly half of the immigrant workers profiled were undocumented. Undocumented home care workers who are older adults or approaching older age may have their own increasing health and welfare needs but face the prospect of having little to no safety net to help meet those needs.
Undocumented immigrants face heightened risks because they generally cannot access the safety net programs that their peers rely upon in times of need. They do not qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-wage workers, unemployment benefits after a job loss or Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits if they become disabled or when they reach retirement age. They are not eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or federal Medicaid benefits for routine medical care.
The concept of providing benefits to all immigrants is gaining some traction.
Some states and localities have stepped in to provide some benefits, typically in a patchwork fashion and only for certain categories of immigrants. For example, Illinois provides state-funded benefits for certain categories of immigrants, including SSI-like benefits, TANF and SNAP. The state also provides comprehensive Medicaid benefits for low-income children, pregnant people and older adults regardless of immigration status.
Where it exists, these state-level patchwork benefits typically cover only certain categories of immigrants. One such category previously qualified for federally funded programs but lost eligibility due to legislative changes that stripped them of this assistance in the 1990s, but there are other specific categories, too. Low-income undocumented immigrants who do not fit into these categories have access to very few benefits based upon where they live.
How About Benefits for All Immigrants?
As the situation of undocumented older adults has become more visible, so too has the concept of income benefits that are inclusive of all immigrants, regardless of status. A number of states have recently enacted program expansions as part of an effort to make their state-funded income benefits more inclusive. For example, both Colorado and California recently expanded their state Earned Income Tax Credit to undocumented workers who file their taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) rather than a Social Security number.
California had previously expanded its credit to older workers ages 65 and older, which ensured that the state’s recent expansion to ITIN filers would include undocumented older workers. New York enacted an Excluded Worker Fund to provide benefits to undocumented immigrants who were excluded from federal pandemic unemployment benefits. And California is in the process of planning and implementing a program to extend state-funded SNAP benefits to undocumented immigrants, with older adults proposed as the initial expansion population.
At the federal policy level, pandemic stimulus payments are one place where the situation of undocumented workers and their families has recently become more visible. The first round of stimulus payments in early 2020 excluded tax-filing households where one parent or member of a couple was undocumented. This meant that a family of four where one parent was undocumented but the other parent and both children had Social Security numbers could not receive any stimulus payment. Subsequent rounds of stimulus payments partially corrected this exclusion by allowing payments to the spouse and children who have a Social Security number.
As governments at all levels plan new programs and updates to existing programs, they may want to consider whether restrictions based on immigration status make sense given the purpose of the program, and they may want to consider designing and revising program rules that default to being inclusive of all immigrants.
The movement toward inclusive benefits can be a helpful resource for these efforts, as it provides models for a safety net that recognizes both the contributions and needs of older undocumented immigrants in our communities. There is much more that can be done to improve economic security for undocumented older adults, and an important first step is to simply begin the discussion.
Trinh Phan is a senior staff attorney in Justice in Aging’s Oakland, Calif., office.