The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 22, 2017

Exploring the costs and benefits of immigrants through a local lens

December 22, 2017

On two recent episodes of popular radio show and podcast This American Life, hosts Ira Glass and Miki Meek explored a demographic shift in Albertville, Alabama, a rural city that experienced a huge influx of migrant workers from Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s. The hosts reached out to my colleague Kim Rueben for help understanding how much the newcomers might have cost Albertville’s local population.

We investigated the potential costs and benefits of this complicated issue by examining how much of a financial burden the wave of immigrants may have placed on the publicly funded K–12 education system and whether the population increased enrollment in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp program.

Although not included in the final This American Life story, we also investigated what happened to property values and taxes in Albertville compared with neighboring cities and the state as a whole. This project offered a unique opportunity for us to delve deeper into the specifics of a city, digging beyond previous national and state estimates.

How immigrants affected school enrollment and SNAP use

Albertville’s public education system is the largest service funded by local taxpayers. It is also the public service that immigrants and their children use the most. As the city’s population shot up—increasing 31 percent between 1990 and 2010—enrollment in K–12 public schools increased almost 50 percent between 1989 and 2013. Hispanic students accounted for the entire increase of roughly 1,600 students.

Albertville School District Enrollment by Ethnicity

The cost to educate these additional students is substantial. We estimated the cost of educating a single new student in Albertville hovered around $6,000 in 2013, but the local sales and property taxes paid by Hispanic adults largely offset the costs of educating their children. We estimated that in 2013, each non-Hispanic household only paid about $272 more toward the public education system than they would have if there were no Hispanic families or students in Albertville. The demographic patterns in Albertville also differed from some of the surrounding cities, where student enrollment decreased.

We also examined SNAP use in Marshall County, where Albertville is located. Marshall County’s SNAP use has increased faster than the national trend, with the share of the population using SNAP doubling from 8 percent to 16 percent between 1989 and 2010. Total US SNAP enrollment increased from 7.5 percent to 13 percent during that time.

But Marshall County’s growth was slower than for the overall state, as SNAP enrollment rate in Alabama more than doubled from 11 percent to 26 percent over the same period. That Alabama’s food stamp enrollment increased more quickly than Marshall County’s while experiencing a smaller influx of immigrants suggests that immigrants may have slowed SNAP enrollment in Marshall County.

A unique opportunity to delve into one community

The Urban Institute’s State and Local Finance Initiative typically explores state and local public finance issues from a 30,000-foot view. We track trends and make broad comparisons across states and localities, usually working with aggregates and averages. We don’t often have the opportunity to zero in on the forces affecting a particular community.

Working with This American Life, which specializes in telling personal stories, brought our analysis to the household level. We could see the ways household tax bills increased to pay for a recent renovation at the local high school, and we saw SNAP enrollment increase during the 2008 recession. Moreover, after running the numbers and providing the objective, evidence-based analysis that Urban is known for, it was rewarding to see skilled storytellers incorporate our work into a compelling narrative.

Jose Contreras stands outside his closed store and restaurant in Albertville, Ala., Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011. Dozens of businesses across the state shut down as Hispanics took a day off from work to protest against Alabama's tough new immigration law. Photo by Dave Martin/AP

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