In the public debate, immigration is often blamed for increased healthcare costs and taxpayer burden. However, empirical evidence shows that immigrants are typically young and relatively healthy and, therefore, less likely to use health care than natives. Indeed, a voluminous set of studies provides evidence of a “healthy immigrant effect”. Immigrants are healthier than their population of origin and than natives upon their arrival, but their health deteriorates with time spent in the host country. Shedding light on these health patterns is crucial to evaluate the costs and benefits of migration, and, in particular, its impact on health care costs.
Yet, the mechanisms underlying immigrant health trajectories are not fully understood. Despite the evidence that immigrants are more likely to work in occupations that involve higher physical burden and are associated with higher risk of negative health outcomes, the relationship between working conditions and the health trajectories of immigrants has been largely ignored by previous studies.
In a new IZA discussion paper, Fabrizio Mazzonna and Osea Giuntella show that one of the mechanisms underlying the immigrant health deterioration is the self-selection of immigrants in more strenuous occupations. As immigrants arrive relatively healthy but with less human and financial capital than natives, they have stronger incentives to trade off health for higher lifetime earnings, accepting worse working conditions for higher wages. Using data from Germany (1996-2010), the authors show that the health deterioration of immigrants is larger among immigrants working in more physically demanding jobs. In light of these facts, the researchers investigate whether changes in the spatial concentration of immigrants affect natives’ health, by leading natives towards jobs involving less physical burden. Their findings show that a higher immigration rate decreases natives’ likelihood of doctor-assessed disability. Effects are concentrated among low skilled men in blue-collars jobs and larger for previous cohorts of immigrants.
The researchers show that immigration reduces the degree of physical intensity, the number of hours worked, and the likelihood of working at night among natives in blue-collar occupations. They conclude that the overall improvement on the observed working conditions can account for at least 25% of the positive effect of immigration on natives’ health.