- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

As the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has steadily grown in the last two decades, so has the number of obese Americans. Is this a coincidence or is there a connection?

Twenty years ago the illegal immigrant population was about 3 million. Today it is estimated around 12 million, with the fastest growth in the boom economic years of the late 1990s. Most illegal immigrants are from Latin American, predominately Mexico, and have relatively low skill and education levels.

Though they can be found in various industries and occupations, illegal workers are employed in large numbers on household tasks that most Americans once did for themselves, such as cleaning the house and taking care of the yard. Some are employed directly by householders as maids, house cleaners and yard workers, and others work as employees of companies that provide services to residential customers.

A number of the householders who hire illegal workers can be counted among the more than 60 million obese adults in America. (Obesity is officially defined as having a Body Mass Index of 30 or over.) According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the age-adjusted percentage of obese people in the population 20 and older rose from 22.9 in the 1988-94 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to 32.2 in 2003-04. If the overweight are added in (Body Mass Index of 25 to 29.9), the 2003-04 total jumps to 66.3 percent.

Those who can afford to hire illegal workers to do their house and yard work are no less likely to be obese than lower-income people. According to a study by Allison A. Hedley and C. Ogden presented at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conference in Atlanta last year, “The prevalence of obesity among low-income adults does not exceed that of high-income adults.”

As the CDC and medical researchers tell us, obesity increases the risk of many diseases and adverse health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems, and some cancers. Obesity is also reported to cause complications of pregnancy, bladder control problems, psychological disorders, and premature death.

The cost of obesity is staggering. A study by researchers at RTI International and the CDC estimated obesity-attributable medical expenditures at $75 billion in 2003, with taxpayers financing half the cost through Medicare and Medicaid.

According to the Web site of the U.S. surgeon general, “Being physically active can help you attain or maintain a healthy weight.” Among the activities the surgeon general and the CDC recommend to reduce the incidence of obesity are some of the very household tasks Americans have been giving over to immigrant workers. These include “working in the yard,” “cleaning the house,” “washing windows or floors,” “gardening,” “raking leaves,” and “shoveling snow.”

The number of immigrant workers has been increasing faster than total employment, and jobs in the household-related occupations of maid, housekeeper, landscaper and groundskeeper are projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to continue growing faster than average.

Without a surfeit of illegal immigrants, the cost of getting household jobs done would probably be higher. With less competition from cheap illegal labor, legal workers would benefit. And some householders who enjoyed access to cheap immigrant labor would no longer be willing or able to pay the higher wages resulting from a restricted immigrant labor supply.

To the extent Americans adjusted their lifestyle to a reduction in the supply of immigrant labor by doing more household tasks, obesity would decline and health would improve. It would also be a financial boon. Householders would save on labor costs and obesity-related medical and other expenses, and taxpayers would save a bundle to boot.

Of course, there might be some output or revenue losses. Obesity has become an industry. There are oversize chairs, beds, clothing, doors, caskets, and myriad other products made specially for the obese, often at prices above traditionally sized items. A reduction in obesity would mean fewer such goods are produced. On the other hand, freed-up consumer dollars find ways to be spent, or even saved, and the beneficiaries of weight loss would be glad for the additional purchasing power.

The household sector is only one slice of the economy. Addressing the illegal immigration problem nationally will require better border security and stronger work-site enforcement. Nevertheless, on a smaller scale, getting in physical shape by doing more of our own work around the house and yard instead of hiring illegal immigrants to do it will help too. Call it a modest proposal.

Alfred Tella is former Georgetown University research professor of economics.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide