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Editorial: State spending on refugee programs benefits WNY

The “Silver Tsunami” is a term used to describe the coming wave of baby boomers heading into retirement, usually to raise alarms about whether their Social Security, health care and other expenses can be paid for.

A more immediate concern in Western New York is finding enough workers to fill the jobs that retirees leave behind. A Buffalo News story on Tuesday reported that companies can’t find people to fill the jobs they have, while others can’t expand their businesses due to lack of staff.

Like a slowly leaking tire, Erie Niagara’s population had been declining. But since 2013, it has risen by 3,000, in good part because of refugees and other immigrants settling here. We need more of that.

New York’s Enhanced Services to Refugees Program funds 14 refugee organizations across the state. It was formed in 2017 in response to federal cutbacks under President Trump. The state funded the program with $2 million each of the past two years; this year, organizers are asking for $4.5 million. They should get it. That’s not an extravagant request for a statewide program, even in a difficult budget year. Money spent on resettling refugees is an investment in our economy, particularly upstate.

The example of Utica is instructive. The fading factory city has increased its population in recent years by 3 percent after billing itself as “the town that loves refugees.” Utica has a large population of Muslims from Bosnia that have helped keep its economy going. Refugees make up a quarter of its population and have made the city a model to its upstate neighbors.

Buffalo, of course, has a large refugee community, with Burmese, Bangladeshi and numerous other groups settling here. Four different agencies that help refugees adjust to life here benefit from the state funding, which so far has not been accounted for in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget.

As Trump puts tighter lids on legal immigration – the maximum number of refugees the U.S. says it will accept this year is 30,000, the lowest in three decades – it becomes harder for the resettlement agencies to get funding. Yet the needs continue as they help refugees who are already in Western New York get acclimated to life here, so they can become fully contributing members of society. Money is also needed to support refugees drawn here from other cities and states – people who have resettled elsewhere but are seeking better opportunities. They are a potentially rich source of talent that cannot be overlooked in replenishing our population.

There are great humanitarian reasons for welcoming refugees who are fleeing persecution or economic devastation in other countries. But the economic argument alone is compelling.

The New York Times in 2017 reported on a study done by the federal government – but rejected by the Trump administration – that showed refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues than they cost over the previous 10 years.

Many refugees are hard workers, potential business owners or professional people, with the kind of work ethic employers are desperate to find.

Western New York’s median age is close to 41. Our labor force has shrunk by 8 percent over the past decade.

To ensure the promised Buffalo renaissance turns into reality, we need more hands on deck. Welcoming refugees here is a big part of the puzzle. Albany must play its part.

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