Reinvesting in Refugees
By Kimberly Horner | September 21, 2021
Kimberly Horner is doctoral student at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
After four years of slashing refugee resettlement under the Trump administration, the US is facing renewed calls to respond to the global refugee crisis. Millions have been displaced by protracted conflicts, while emergency evacuations were precipitated by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. A swift increase in refugee admission to the US is critical, yet so too is increased investment in resettlement that will support both higher refugee admissions as well as a large number of evacuated Afghanis admitted to the US through Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) or parole.
Refugees resettled in the United States often arrive at a disadvantage compared to other immigrants, as their flight from persecution disrupts education or employment and precludes investment in skills such as language acquisition. After arrival in the US, investment in human capital such as education, language classes, and job training are essential for successful economic integration. However, refugees must consider the tradeoffs involved, weighing the potential economic penalties and payoffs of their investments.
My colleagues at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and I find that these tradeoffs are experienced differently by refugee men and women, with women ultimately failing to achieve economic parity with refugee men. The Biden administration has committed to restoring prior levels of refugee resettlement, targeting an admissions cap of 125,000 refugees in fiscal year 2022. To reach this goal, the US resettlement program must also rebuild capacity—with careful consideration of how it rebuilds, what it prioritizes, and for whom.
Understanding Resettlement in the United States
Refugees are people who have fled their home countries for fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. There are over 26 million refugees in the world, the majority of whom are displaced in developing countries. While less than one percent of refugees are resettled each year, the US has historically been a leader in resettlement efforts.
That changed during the Trump administration. Despite rising numbers of global refugees, the US resettled just 12,000 refugees in 2020 – a dramatic reduction from the 60,000 to 80,000 refugees resettled annually in the US between 2009 and 2016.
Reduced refugee admissions and subsequent funding cuts have crippled US resettlement programming. US refugee resettlement programming involves an extensive network of public and private partnerships, including federal agencies, state governments, national and local nonprofits, as well as community and religious organizations that collaborate to provide reception for refugees. Federal funding is critical for many of these services, and that funding is tied to the annual number of refugees resettled. Recently low numbers of refugee resettlement have meant drastic decreases in federal dollars resulting in the closure of over 100 local resettlement agencies as well as program and staffing cuts.
Recently low numbers of refugee resettlement have meant drastic decreases in federal dollars resulting in the closure of over 100 local resettlement agencies as well as program and staffing cuts.
Currently, the US resettlement program prioritizes early routes to self-sufficiency. Refugees are encouraged to quickly find employment and are generally afforded refugee cash assistance and medical assistance for a mere eight months after resettlement, though some individuals and families qualify for other government sponsored benefits such as TANF or SNAP. As a result, refugee employment rates quickly approach those of other immigrants and U.S.-born residents—but at a price. In the push to obtain employment, refugees may miss opportunities to significantly invest in education, language classes, or job training that would allow for longer-term economic advancement.
The Role of Gender in Human Capital Investments
To understand more about the impact of human capital investment among refugees, my colleagues and I analyzed data from over 3,000 refugee households that participated in either the 2016 or 2017 Annual Survey of Refugees (ASR), a national survey of refugees who resettled in the United States in the previous five years. The survey includes questions regarding economic outcomes such as employment, wages, and hours worked, as well as demographic and health data. It also asks about recent human capital investments, including whether an individual has enrolled in formal education, English classes, or job training in the last 12 months. Using this data, we explore the gendered differences in likelihood of enrollment in these programs, the short-term impacts of enrollment, and the potential longer-term payoffs of skills and experiences associated with these investments.
We find that gender plays a prominent role in human capital investment. Refugee women were more likely than men to have recently enrolled in education or English classes, but the presence of young children decreased the likelihood that refugee women enroll in these courses. This may be due to the primary caregiving role played by refugee women. Our analysis also suggests that refugees with higher English fluency are more likely to enroll in education, English classes, and job training.
The impact of investing in human capital opportunities tells a gendered story among refugees.
The impact of investing in human capital opportunities also tells a gendered story among refugees. Both men and women saw short-term economic penalties associated with recent enrollment in education and English classes, perhaps due to part-time or flexible work schedules needed to pursue these opportunities. Notably, however, refugee women lagged behind refugee men in economic outcomes regardless of their recent investment in human capital. Predictive models indicate that, while the average 40-year-old refugee man experiences a wage penalty of about 50 cents per hour associated with recent educational enrollment ($10.65 vs $10.18 per hour), similarly positioned refugee women earn wages substantially below refugee men, and those recently enrolled in education experience a wage penalty of about $1 per hour ($7.75 vs $6.71 per hour).
In contrast to recent enrollment in education or English classes, participation in job training was associated with more positive outcomes for all refugees, regardless of gender. Women enjoyed a larger increase in employment probability and wages linked to recent job training when compared to men—but the increase did not result in parity. Predictive models suggest that a typical 40-year-old refugee woman who recently participated in job training has an increased employment probability (75 percent) compared to other refugee women (46 percent), but lags behind refugee men with recent job training (96 percent employment probability) as well as without (89 percent). This model indicates that a recently trained 40-year-old refugee woman would earn about $10 per hour—nearly $2 per hour more than the average refugee woman without recent job training. However, this wage is still about $1 dollar less per hour than refugee men without recent job training and $2 less per hour than refugee men with recent job training.
Finally, to understand the longer-term potential impacts of human capital development, we examine economic outcomes for refugee men and women based on prior educational attainment, English fluency, and prior work experience. It appears that investing pays off, as these skills and experience are associated with a higher probability of employment and higher wages among refugees. In fact, positive effects are often larger for refugee women compared to refugee men. For example, refugee men who spoke English “very well” earned about $1 more per hour than a refugee man who spoke English “not at all,” while a refugee woman who spoke English “very well” earned approximately $3 more per hour than a refugee woman that spoke English “not at all.” Nonetheless, refugee women on average have lower English proficiency and lower average hourly wages compared to refugee men.
Taking Gender Into Account Going Forward
Even though refugee women may be more likely to undertake human capital investments and see greater long-term benefits when compared to refugee men, these investments do not erase the economic gap between refugee men and women resettled in the United States. Refugee women with young children are not accessing opportunities to the same extent as those without children, and lower English fluency also makes human capital investment less likely, indicating that there may be needs around childcare or program accessibility for those with limited English proficiency.
Even though refugee women may be more likely to undertake human capital investments and see greater long-term benefits when compared to refugee men, these investments do not erase the economic gap between refugee men and women resettled in the United States.
These findings align with a recent survey of refugees and refugee resettlement agencies administered by the Center for Migration Studies, which outlined significant gendered differences in resettlement needs—in large part due to refugee women taking responsibility for childcare. Moving forward in the rebuilding process of US refugee resettlement, there must be continued efforts to advocate on behalf of refugee women, to incorporate the voices of refugee women, and to identify gender-specific barriers and opportunities in order to empower refugee women.
The US has a lot of work to do to rebuild the largest refugee resettlement program in the world. Yet, in the words of David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, there is an opportunity here to “build back different as well as better.” This is an opportunity to not just restore funding, but to work towards building one of the best resettlement programs in the world, with the capacity to help all refugees in the US—both women and men—to thrive.
Kimberly Horner is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where her research focuses on the local reception of immigrant populations. She was a 2021 Humphrey School Gender Policy Report summer fellow.