The Fiscal Impact of Immigration in the UK

19th February 2013
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Rob McNeil

This briefing explores the conceptual and methodological issues related to estimating the fiscal impact of immigration and provides an overview of the existing estimates for the UK and other countries.

Key Points

  • The net fiscal impact of immigration is typically estimated as the difference between the taxes and other contributions migrants make to public finances and the costs of the public benefits and services they receive. This impact depends on the characteristics of migrants, their impacts on the labour market and the characteristics and rules of the welfare system, among other factors.
  • In theory, migrants who are young, skilled and doing highly-paid jobs are likely to make a more positive net fiscal contribution than those with low skills and low labour market participation rates.
  • For the UK (and most other countries), the majority of studies conclude that the overall net fiscal impact of immigration is positive but small. However, results are subject to key assumptions such as the allocation of dependent UK-born children of mixed parents (i.e. a UK-born and foreign-born parent) to the UK-born or migrant group and to the sectors that are taken into consideration.
  • The evidence suggests that in the four fiscal years following EU enlargement in 2004, migrants from the A8 countries made a positive contribution to public finance in the UK. While A8 migrants work mostly in lower wage occupations, they tend to have high labour force participation rates and employment rates.
  • Immigration may, in the short term, help decrease the dependency ratio – the ratio of those not in the labour force (the dependent group) and those in the labour force. However, this effect is likely to diminish over time as migrants who stay in the UK will become older and retire.

Understanding the evidence

The existing estimates of the fiscal impact of immigration in the UK are few and limited because of a lack of data and accurate information about a wide range of important factors. For this and other reasons, a significant number of assumptions must be made in order to estimate the fiscal effects of immigration, and results tend to change based on these assumptions.
The estimation of the fiscal impact of immigration requires a comparison between the costs imposed by migrants on public finances (including the services and benefits used by migrants) and their taxes and other public finance contributions they make. There are two main ways of conducting this analysis: a static approach and a dynamic approach. The static approach is based on a specific year, and simply compares the contributions of migrants to public finances with the services and benefits received for that year. The advantage of this approach is its simplicity and the fact that it uses historical data, while the disadvantage is the lack of a forward-looking perspective given that it is a snapshot at one point in time.
An alternative is the dynamic approach, which computes the net present value of contributions and costs over the entire lifetime of migrants and, in some cases, their children. The advantage of this approach is the forward-looking perspective and the possibility of exploring changes in fiscal impacts between UK-born individuals and migrants. The limitation of the dynamic approach is that it requires strong future assumptions about many factors such as migrant fertility rates, return migration rates, productivity rates, labour market participation rates, tax rates and government spending, among others. The results of these studies tend to differ significantly based on changes in these assumptions.
A forward-looking approach that has been popular in the literature is generational accounting. This approach explores the fiscal implication of immigration under multiple assumptions about the tax burden across generations. In general these studies assert that, given most countries’ current levels of spending and existing debt, higher taxes will be needed in the future. If the tax reform takes place immediately, the burden on future generations (where migrants and their descendants are more represented) is not as big. However, if the assumption is made that future generations will bear most (or all) of the burden from the tax reform, then immigration will have a greater positive fiscal impact.

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In theory, the fiscal effects of immigration largely depend on migrants’ characteristics (skills, age, length of stay), their impacts on the labour market and welfare entitlements

Estimating the net fiscal impact of immigration is a challenging task because of the large number of factors affecting it. Among other important factors, estimates must take account of migrants’ characteristics such as skill level, age distribution, family composition, health status, fertility patterns, and the temporary versus permanent nature of immigration. Among these characteristics, the skill level of migrants (and its correlation with the other characteristics) is likely to be one of the main determinants of their fiscal impacts in the short run. High-skilled migrants working in highly paid jobs can be expected to pay more taxes than low-skilled migrants in low-wages jobs. At the same time, the participation in welfare programmes tends to decrease with skill level, i.e. higher skilled migrants are less likely to be eligible for means tested welfare transfers than low-skilled migrants.

There are two key assumptions and caveats. First, not all skilled migrants are doing skilled work in the UK. Second, as is the case in other countries with high levels of immigration rates, some migrants are explicitly excluded from full access to certain types of benefits in the UK. For instance, many non-EU nationals with permission to reside in the UK have “no recourse to public funds”. As such, they are not able to claim housing assistance and most types of benefits in the UK.

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Empirical evidence for the UK suggests that the overall fiscal impact of immigration in fiscal year 2003-2004 and previous fiscal years was mostly positive but small

Attempts at analysing the fiscal impact of immigration in the UK started about a decade ago with a Home Office report (Gott and Johnston 2002). The report used a static approach, as do all other main studies in the topic for the UK. The focus of the report was the fiscal year 1999-2000. Among the key decisions made by the authors was the definition of which group of individuals should constitute the “migrant population” whose net fiscal contribution would be estimated and compared to the UK-born. The study defined migrants as foreign-born residents. Most of the research on the net fiscal impact of immigration in the UK has followed this approach.

There are major data gaps related to this topic in the UK and, as such, Gott and Johnston (2002) pointed out that they could only provide tentative results. Their study concluded that the overall contribution of migrants was positive, but that the impact varies with the characteristics of migrants. The estimates suggest that for the fiscal year 1999-2000 migrants in the UK contributed GBP 31.2 billion in taxes and used benefits and state services valued at GBP 28.8 billion. Therefore, the net fiscal contribution of migrants was approximately GBP 2.5 billion.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), presented an updated version of the Home Office analysis (Sriskandarajah et al. 2005). Its main contribution was to extend the estimation to cover five years of data. The IPPR analysis suggests that real revenues from migrants grew by 22% from fiscal year 1999-2000 to fiscal year 2003-2004 (reaching GBP 41.2 billion). However, the expenditure associated with immigrants reached GBP 41.6 billion in the fiscal year 2003-2004. Therefore, the net- contribution of immigrants in the fiscal year 2003-2004 was negative at GBP -0.4 billion.

The IPPR report focuses on the relative fiscal contribution of immigrants versus that of natives. In any given year, the contribution of migrants (in volume) depends on the state of public finances (i.e. surplus versus deficit) and the fact that migrants are having a positive or negative fiscal impact (in terms of volume) does not indicate clearly how they compare to UK-born individuals. Even if migrants pay more in taxes than the cost of services received, there could still be a smaller gap (between taxes paid and services received) for migrants than for natives. Sriskandarajah et al. (2005) argue that the relevant measure is not the actual net figure, but the ratio of migrants’ contributions to migrants’ consumption of public services. This ratio is referred to as the net annual fiscal contribution (NAFI).

IPPR’s analysis suggests that the NAFI for migrants in 1999-2000 was 1.06, higher than the UK-born value (1.01). For 2003-2004, the difference between migrants and the UK-born increased; the NAFI for migrants was 0.99 compared to 0.88 for the UK-born. The fact that the NAFI was less than one suggests that in 2003-2004 the net fiscal contribution of migrants was negative, but that it was “less negative” than that of the UK-born individuals.

A study by Rowthorn (2008) adopted a slightly different approach and made an adjustment to estimate what the migrant contribution would be with a balanced budget. Rowthorn also adjusted for a number of other factors including additional costs for asylum support, ethnic relations support, excess medical costs (in relation to HIV) and a correction for the inclusion of defence spending (a public good whose scale is largely unaffected by the migrant inflow). The study concluded that the actual net contribution of migrants in 2003-2004 was small but positive of about GBP 0.6 billion (Rowthorn 2008).

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A 2006 report by MigrationWatch UK was critical of the allocation of spending on services for children born to one migrant parent and a UK-born parent. Previous analysis considered the spending on these children to be part of the benefits consumed by the UK-born group (Rowthorn [2008] also adjusted estimates to address this point). According to MigrationWatch UK, the appropriate approach is to split this spending in equal parts between the UK-born and foreign-born groups. By making this change, MigrationWatch UK estimates suggest that the net fiscal impact of migrants is negative (the estimates are GBP 1 billion for 1999-2000 and GBP 5 billion for 2003-2004). MigrationWatch UK also presents estimates allocating all children of mixed couples to the migrant group and, as expected, the fiscal burden of migrants is estimated to be much higher (around GBP 3.8 billion in 1999-2000).

Table 1 provides a summary of the findings for the UK for the fiscal years 1999-2000 to 2003-2004.

Table 1 – Comparison of different estimates of the fiscal effects of immigration for the fiscal years 1999-2000 to 2003-2004 (in GBP billion)

  Revenue Expenditure Net
Home Office (Gott and Johnston 2002)      
1999-2000 31.2 28.8 2.5
IPPR (Sriskandarajah et al. 2005)      
1999-2000 30.9 29.0 1.9
2000-2001 33.5 31.8 1.7
2001-2002 36.6 34.8 1.8
2002-2003 37.9 38.1 -0.1
2003-2004 41.2 41.6 -0.4
MigrationWatch UK (2006)      
1999-2000 (Children of mixed households split)     -1.0
1999-2000 (Children of mixed households all
allocated to migrant group)
2003-2004 (Children of mixed households split)     -5.0
Rowthorn (2008)      
2003-2004 46.0 45.4 0.6

Note: see original sources for a full discussion of differences in methodology and assumptions between estimates.

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In the four fiscal years following EU enlargement in 2004, migrants from the A8 countries made a positive contribution to public finance, despite the UK running a budget deficit

A study evaluating the fiscal impact of immigration from the A8 countries (those which joined the EU in 2004 and which did not already enjoy right of entry to the UK) found that in the four fiscal years after 2004 (i.e. 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2007-2008 and 2008-2009), A8 migrants made a positive contribution to public finances (Dustmann et al. 2010). While A8 migrants work mostly in lower wage occupations, they have high labour force participation rates and employment rates, a fact which offsets the impact of their lower wages.

The study by Dustmann et al (2010) also finds that even if A8 migrants had the same characteristics as UK-born individuals they would still be less likely to receive government benefits and social housing.

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Migration by itself will not solve the ‘pension problem’ in the long-term

In the short run, the entry of relatively young migrants to the UK will tend to decrease the dependency ratio, that is the ratio of those not in the labour force (the dependent) and those in the labour force. Yet migrants will become old, and those who stay in the UK for the long-term will retire and begin to accrue more financial costs. Therefore, a constant flow of an increasing number of migrants and/or a balance heavily tilted toward temporary migration would be necessary to maintain the decrease in the dependency ratio.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR, 2012) explored the long-term fiscal sustainability of the UK using the Office for National Statistics (ONS) 2010-based population projections. OBR adopts the ONS low net-migration variant (+140,000) to estimate their central projection. They also provide fiscal projections assuming the ONS high net-migration variant (+260,000) and the ONS zero net-migration variant.

OBR finds that higher net migration reduces pressure on government debt over time. This result is based on the fact that incoming migrants are assumed to be more likely to be of working age than the population in general. This assumption means that in the short-term immigration increases tax receipts and does not add much to age-related government spending (e.g. pensions).

As shown in Figure 1, based on OBR projections, the high net-migration variant results in decreasing public sector net debt  as share of GDP for about four decades (i.e. until fiscal year 2049-50). At that point net public debt is projected at 43% of GDP, while in this scenario net public debt is 54% of GDP in fiscal year 2061-62. The central fiscal projection, which assumes net-migration of +140,000 results in decreasing net public debt until the fiscal year 2035-36 (reaching 57% of GDP in that year). In the zero net-migration scenario, net public debt as a share of GDP increases continuously and reaches 187% of GDP in the fiscal year 2061-62.

Figure 1

However, the report cautions that in the long-term, when migrants retire, those who remain in the UK will push up spending more than they increase revenues, and even if they leave the UK most will still be entitled to UK state pension payments.

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The research evidence from static analyses (i.e. focusing on a specific fiscal year) of the fiscal impact of immigration in other European countries and the USA remains mixed

Huddle (1993), in one of the first studies about this issue for the USA, suggests that for 1992 migrants in the USA paid about USD 20.2 billion in taxes and received in services (directly and indirectly) about USD 62.8 billion, for a net deficit of USD 42.5 billion. In a follow up study, Huddle (1994) estimated the net fiscal impact of immigrants for 1993 to be USD -44.1 billion.

Researchers at The Urban Institute challenged Huddle’s results. They criticised three aspects in the analysis, which include problems in the estimation of the revenue collected from immigrants, the costs imposed by immigrants and the selective inclusion of only certain indirect impacts of immigration (i.e. those related to the displacement of native workers). According to The Urban Institute researchers, once those problems were “addressed” the estimate of the fiscal impact of immigration was, at the least, positive USD 25 billion (Passel 1994, Passel and Fix 1994, Passel and Clark 1994).

Borjas (1994) criticized The Urban Study analysis for assuming that the marginal cost of providing many public services to migrants is zero. He presents a “back-of-the-envelope” estimate of the fiscal impact of migrants in which the marginal cost of providing public services to migrants equals the average cost of those services and the per capita income of the migrants is the same of the natives. He argues that in this scenario it is fair to attribute to migrants and natives the same share of the spending in government programs. With these assumptions and using data from 1990 he found that the net annual fiscal loss associated with immigration in the USA was about USD 16 billion.

In European countries, estimates suggest that the contribution of migrants in Sweden was negative for 1991 and 1994 at about 0.9% and 2% of the gross national product, respectively (Ekber 1999). Weber and Straubhaar (1994) explored the fiscal impact of immigration in Switzerland in 1990. Their results suggest that migrants in Switzerland represent a hefty indirect subsidy for Swiss households. They estimate that the average net transfer from the foreign population to the Swiss population is about USD 1,700 per household. Accounting for the number of foreigners in Switzerland, this amounts to USD 464.1 million at the national level. They argue further that this number is likely to be underestimated.

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Dynamic studies for other European countries and the USA tend to show that high-skilled migrants represent a gain for the government, while low skilled migrants represent a burden for public finances

Dynamic studies tend to show that migrants make a positive contribution to public finances, but that the impact of migration is still small and that it depends on migrants’ characteristics (in particular with respect to educational attainment). For instance, Storesletten (2000) finds that for the USA high and medium-skilled migrants represent a gain for the government. Another dynamic study for the USA finds a positive, but small contribution of migrants to the fiscal system (Lee and Miller 1998). The results of the study suggest that the definition of the “migrant population” is one of the key factors determining the outcome. For instance, if the population under study is limited to just migrants, estimates show a positive fiscal impact of about USD 32.4 billion. Yet if the population under study is migrants plus their concurrent descendants (children and grandchildren), the fiscal impact of migrants is about USD 23.5 billion.

Estimates from dynamic analysis for Sweden suggest that the net fiscal impact of young working age migrants (20 to 30 years of age) is positive at about USD 23,500 per migrant (Storesletten 2003). However, when looking at an “average” new migrant (i.e. taking into account the actual age distribution of new migrants), the study finds a net government loss of about USD 20,500 per migrant.

Other papers for Sweden include Ekberg (2011). He posits that the projected net contribution of new migrants to Sweden all the way to the year 2050 is less than one percent of GDP for most years. In his optimistic case, new migrants have the same age-specific employment rates and incomes than the existing population. In this case, migrants make a public contribution to public finances. In his pessimistic case, migrants have employment rates and income which are much worse than natives and reflect the labour market outcomes of those migrants living in Sweden at the moment.  In this scenario, the net contribution of migrants to public finances is negative.

Using techniques of general accounting, Auerbach and Orepolous (2000) showed that changes in the level of immigration have an uncertain fiscal impact. The study also finds that the improvement of the fiscal situation in the USA during the 1990s reduced the potential benefit of immigration, as future generations were likely to bear a lower net fiscal burden (migrants and their descendants typically represent a larger portion of future generations than current ones). However, a study in Spain using the same methodology found that immigration would substantially lower the fiscal burden of Spanish-born individuals (Doloreas Collado and Iturbe-Ormaetxe 2004). There are two reasons for the difference in impacts in the USA and Spain. First, the problem of an aging population is more serious in Spain than in the USA, and second the average gap in the educational level of migrants and native-born individuals in Spain is smaller than in the USA.

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Evidence gaps and limitations

Estimates of the fiscal effects of immigration depend on assumptions about how migrants use public services. Most studies simply estimate the share of the population represented by migrants and assume that they account for the same share of consumption of public services. Yet migrants have different characteristics from UK-born individuals and as such may use public services differently. For instance, migrants may use services such as translation services in schools and hospitals that are not typically used by the native-born population. One difficulty in addressing this point is that there is no systematic collection of the user’s migration status at the point of delivery of many public services.

On the other hand, some migrants deliver public services as well as consuming them. It may be possible to deliver services in the public sector at a lower cost because of the availability of migrants willing to work at a lower wage. These pros and cons of migration for specific sectors are difficult to measure in practice because of the lack of data in most cases.

Any assessment of the fiscal effects of immigration critically depends on the treatment of migrants’ children. If the definition of a migrant is an individual born outside the country, then the children of migrants born in the country should be part of the native-born group. However, it is possible to argue that these children would not have been in the country if their parents had not migrated in the first place and, therefore, children are part of the migrant group. This is complicated further by the existence of children of mixed couples (i.e. one UK-born and one foreign-born). It is not clear if these children should be included in one group or the other, or simply “split” between the two groups.

The fiscal impacts of immigration also depend on the effects of migrants on the tax contributions and use of public services of the UK-born. One example is the labour market impact of immigration, especially whether and to what extent the employment of migrants creates more unemployment among domestic workers. Increasing unemployment among domestic workers leads to less tax revenues and increase consumption of welfare benefits. Most fiscal impact studies assume that the impact of migrants on domestic workers employment is negligible, yet empirical findings from the literature on the employment effects of immigration remain mixed (Migration Advisory Committee 2012, Rowthorn 2008). Another typical example about immigration increasing the fiscal burden of the UK-born population is the possibility that the presence of migrants increases housing prices (including rents) and displaces the UK-born population from the rental sector to the social housing sector (see our briefing on 'Migrants and Housing in the UK: Experiences and Impacts'). On the other hand, the presence of migrants may also increase the tax contribution of the UK-born. For instance, the presence of low skilled migrant females working as nannies may allow domestic workers to increase their labour supply increasing also their tax contributions. These types of indirect effects has been mostly absent from the previous literature in the UK.

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  • Auerbach, Alan J. and Philip Oreopoulos. “The Fiscal Effects of U.S. Immigration: A Generational-Accounting Perspective.” Tax Policy and the Economy 14 (2000): 123-156.
  • Borjas, George J. “The Economics of Immigration.” Journal of Economic Literature 32 (1994): 1667-1717. Dolores Collado, M., I. Iturbe-Ormaetxe, and G. Valera. “Quantifying the Impact of Immigration on the Spanish Welfare State.” International Tax and Public Finance 11 (2004): 335-353.
  • Dustmann, C., T. Frattini, and C. Halls. “Assessing the Fiscal Costs and Benefits of A8 Migration to the UK.” Fiscal Studies 31 (2010): 1-41.
  • Ekber, J. “Immigration and the Public Sector: Income Effects for the Native Population in Sweden.” Journal of Population Economics 12 (1999): 278-297.
  • Gott, C. and K. Johnston. “The migrant Population in the UK: Fiscal Effects. Development and Statistics Directorate Occasional Paper 77, Home Office, London, 2002.
  • Huddle, Donald. “The Net National Cost of Immigration.” Carrying Capacity Network, Anaheim, CA, 1993.
  • Lee, R. and T. Miller. “The Current Fiscal Impact of Immigrants and Their Descendants: Beyond the Immigrant Household.” In The Immigration Debate: Studies on the Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, edited by J. Smith and B. Edmonston. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998.
  • MigrationWatch UK. “The Fiscal Contribution of Migrants.” Economic Briefing Papers 1.9, MigrationWatch UK, London, 2006.
  • Passel, J.S. “Immigration and Taxes: A Reappraisal of Huddle’s ’The Cost of Immigrants.’” The Urban Institute, Washington DC, 1994.
  • Passel, J.S. and R. Clark. “How Much do Immigrants Really Cost?” Tomas Rivera Center, University of Southern California, LA, 2004.
  • Passel, J.S. and M. Fix. “Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight.” The Urban Institute, Washington DC, 1994.
  • Rowthorn, R. “The Fiscal Impact of Immigration on the Advanced Economies.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 24 (2008): 560-580.
  • Sriskandarajah, D., L. Cooley, and H. Reed. “Paying Their Way: The Fiscal Contribution of Immigrants in the UK.” Institute for Public Policy Research, London, 2005.
  • Storesletten, K. “Sustaining Fiscal Policy through Immigration.” Journal of Political Economy 108 (2000): 300-324.
  • Storesletten, K. “Fiscal Implications of Immigration - A Net Present Value Calculation.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics 105 (2003): 487–506.
  • Weber, R. and T. Straubhaar. “Immigration and the Public Transfer System: Some Empirical Evidence for Switzerland.” Welwirtschaftliches Archiv 132 (1996):330-355.

Further readings

  • Auerbach, Alan J. and Philip Oreopoulos. “Analyzing the Fiscal Impact of US Immigration.” American Economic Review 89 (1999): 176-180.
  • Huddle, D.L. “A Critique of the Urban Institute's Claims of Cost Free Immigration: Early Findings Confirmed.” Population & Environment 16 (1995): 507-519.
  • Lee, R. and T. Miller. “Immigration, Social Security, and Broader Fiscal Impacts.” American Economic Review 90 (2000): 350-354.

Related materials

Thanks to Professor Robert Rowthorn for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this briefing.

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