, Volume 54, Issue 6, pp 2273–2300 | Cite as

Work Disability Among Native-born and Foreign-born Americans: On Origins, Health, and Social Safety Nets

  • Michal Engelman
  • Bert M. Kestenbaum
  • Megan L. Zuelsdorff
  • Neil K. Mehta
  • Diane S. Lauderdale


Public debates about both immigration policy and social safety net programs are increasingly contentious. However, little research has explored differences in health within America’s diverse population of foreign-born workers, and the effect of these workers on public benefit programs is not well understood. We investigate differences in work disability by nativity and origins and describe the mix of health problems associated with receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Our analysis draws on two large national data sources—the American Community Survey and comprehensive administrative records from the Social Security Administration—to determine the prevalence and incidence of work disability between 2001 and 2010. In sharp contrast to prior research, we find that foreign-born adults are substantially less likely than native-born Americans to report work disability, to be insured for work disability benefits, and to apply for those benefits. Overall and across origins, the foreign-born also have a lower incidence of disability benefit award. Persons from Africa, Northern Europe, Canada, and parts of Asia have the lowest work disability benefit prevalence rates among the foreign-born; persons from Southern Europe, Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Caribbean have the highest rates.


Immigration Foreign-born Health Disability Public benefits 



Michal Engelman is supported by the Center for Demography and Ecology (NICHD R24 HD047873) and Center for Demography of Health and Aging (NIA P30 AG17266) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Megan Zuelsdorff is supported by a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (T32 AG00129) from the National Institute of Aging. We thank Irma Elo, Joshua Garoon, and Robert Weathers for helpful discussions.


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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michal Engelman
    • 1
  • Bert M. Kestenbaum
    • 2
  • Megan L. Zuelsdorff
    • 3
  • Neil K. Mehta
    • 4
  • Diane S. Lauderdale
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Center for Demography and EcologyUniversity of Wisconsin–MadisonMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Office of the Chief ActuarySocial Security AdministrationBaltimoreUSA
  3. 3.Center for Demography of Health and AgingUniversity of Wisconsin–MadisonMadisonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Health Management and PolicyUniversity of Michigan School of Public HealthAnn ArborUSA
  5. 5.Department of Public Health SciencesUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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