Remittances: The Health and Well-Being of Senders and Receivers
By Corey Kestenberg
As we look around our Tufts University campus and the Boston metropolitan area, we bear witness to the increasing trend of human migration that is taking place locally. Boston is home to many sizable migrant communities, including the Haitian, Chinese, and Puerto Rican communities. Although migration is seen locally, it is not only a local or national development – it is a worldwide trend. The migration of groups and individuals from less developed countries to more developed countries in search of work is a common practice.
Migration from one country to another is facilitated by geographic proximity, enabling family members to make the journey abroad while still remaining in contact with family members who they leave behind in their country of origin. Important corridors of migration have been established, including the one between Mexico and the U.S. 1 Economic migrants, or those who go abroad to work, are able to send money back to relatives in the form of remittances.
The World Bank defines remittances as money that is sent by migrant workers to their families in the home country. 2 Remittances have recently been a focus of discussion within governments and amongst international organizations. In 2006, $206 billion in recorded remittances were sent to developing countries. 3 This statistic reveals the importance of remittances to the economies and societies of the sending and receiving countries. yet much of the interaction with remittances occurs on the small scale, between individuals and their families. While remittances can improve the health and overall well-being of individuals who receive them, the process of sending remittances can have a negative impact on the remittance senders.
Families who receive remittances benefit from a stable source of income that is not dependent on the fluctuations of the family’s local economy. If a country’s economy suffers from an economic downturn due to a natural or manmade disaster, the family will be able to support itself with the money that it receives from a family member abroad. 2 These families will be able to afford to buy food and water during the time when it is scarce. If their homes are damaged, they may be able to pay for temporary shelter that will give them some degree of safety. These are relief measures that families in poor countries without remittance income cannot afford.
Health disparities are visible between families with remittance income and those without it. Individuals who receive remittances can afford greater access to health services, education, and day-to-day necessities. 4 Research done in Sri lanka has shown that children from families who receive remittances have a lower school dropout rate and higher birth weights. This result shows the benefit of having more money to put towards education and healthcare. 3 In this way, people in developing countries can use remittance money to pay for necessities that government institutions do not cover.
Since the decision to remit is a personal one, deciding how to spend the remittance money only involves the input of family members. However, this individual decision can potentially turn into a multi-party decision when groups of migrants from the same base community choose to remit. Members of the same community can choose to pool remittances in order to fund community projects. For example, Hometown Associations (HTA) from individual communities help organize the pooling and funding of projects. 2 The number of official Mexican HTAs within the U.S. has surpassed 700. 5 In the community of Sauz de los García in Zacatecas, Mexico, one HTA worked on a project to bring potable water to the community. It was able to gain support from the HTA members and was also able to receive extra money from a government finance matching program. 6 The utilization of HTAs to expand the scope of remittances helps make changes on the collective level.
Issues related to remittance receivers are discussed more frequently than issues related to remittance senders. Despite the lack of attention given to it, the health and well-being of remittance senders is equally important. While many claim that remittances help to raise the standard of living for receiving families, the impact of working abroad on migrants is less rewarding. These migrants are subject to the stresses of daily life and the pressure to make enough money to support their families. The poor standard of living of temporary migrants can be examined using general information on the financial earnings of Mexican migrants in the United States. While these migrants work for significantly higher wages than they would earn in Mexico, they live well under the national poverty line in America. 7 This means that during their temporary stay in America, immigrants are probably unable to afford nutritious foods and safe shelter. Migrant workers sacrifice their health for the benefit of the families they leave behind.
Immigrants from Mexico also experience a certain “tradeoff” when they travel to the United States for temporary work. Although they are able to find better work and raise their income, they may feel unhappy because they are away from their families and their social support systems. 7 A majority of migrant male workers leave behind their wives and children because immigration laws prevent them from migrating together. 8 This lapse in familial support may cause the men to feel alone and depressed, and they may resort to alcohol to numb their feelings and avoid the pain of their situation. In fact, psychological trauma appears to be more prevalent than physical trauma. 7 The lifestyle of economic migrants may not be sustainable because it can be physically and psychologically abrasive. In this situation, a migrant’s ability to cope is challenged as the traditional family structure is disrupted.
Circular migrants who work in agriculture also face social challenges as they travel back and forth between a developed country and their native country. The case of Mexican migrants is again used as an example. The United States and Mexico are two vastly different countries. In particular, life in the United States is very structured, whereas life in Mexico is less formally organized. Migrants need to adjust to these different lifestyles so that they can respect the social norms in each country. Since jobs may only be held for several months at a time, the migrants need to quickly change their behaviors in order to fit the situation. 7 The cyclical pattern of changing lifestyles can still be difficult for immigrants to cope with, even if they are accustomed to making the repeated trips.
The conflicting effects of remittances on their senders and receivers make it difficult to be entirely in favor of or opposed to the sending of remittances. Many families today would not be able to survive if they did not have money being sent to them from a family member working abroad. However, if migrant workers were given the opportunity to support their families with work in their home country, they would probably choose to do so.
Remittances can be used to supplement the finances of developing communities. Furthermore, governments must recognize that migration and remittances are beneficial only when public policy helps support the people sending and receiving remittances. The challenges faced by a migrant will affect his or her decision to migrate for work: if personal costs outweigh the benefits, workers will choose not to migrate, and the trend in rising remittances will slow.
1. “Regional Fact Sheet: The Americas.” International Migration and Development. United Nations.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Dr. Manuel Carballo at the International Centre for Migration and Health, in Geneva, Switzerland, for mentoring me throughout the course of this research. Thank you also to Professor Astier Almedom for sharing with me her knowledge and direction in this field. Finally, thank you to Mr. and Mrs. Neubauer for providing the funding which ultimately enabled me to travel to geneva to carry out this research.
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