At Long Last, Latino Employment Bounces Back

03/10/2015 12:28 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

The U.S. economic recovery is in full force. February marked the 12th consecutive month of job growth above 200,000, with U.S. employers adding nearly 300,000 new jobs. But an even more promising sign of recovery is the jump in Hispanic employment. A front-page article in Sunday's New York Times points out that the unemployment rate for Latinos has finally returned to its pre-recession average and job growth for Hispanics is outpacing other groups. This is good news for everybody, since Hispanics and Blacks were two of the communities hardest hit by the recession. The fact that not only Latino but also Black job growth in recent months is outstripping that of the job market overall means the recovery is more complete, more widespread, and more sustainable. But before we declare mission accomplished, let's take a closer look at the economic recovery and the Latino employment picture.

The good news is that Latino unemployment is declining because more Latinos are working. As has historically been the case, Latinos are more likely than other workers to be employed or actively seeking work. Last month, the Latino labor force participation rate was 66 percent, compared to 63 percent for Whites and 61 percent for Blacks. Throughout the recovery, NCLR has highlighted several growth industries where Latinos are overrepresented, including restaurants and temp firms, home care, and retail. The revival of the construction industry in particular, where Latinos make up one-quarter of the workforce, is one industry that is helping the unemployment rate bounce back. Job gains in construction are also visible to those who do not work directly in construction, helping to build overall confidence among Latinos that the broader economy is improving. More work is probably the main reason that Latinos experienced a small, though significant, decline in poverty in 2013 when no other group experienced a change.

Whenever there is good news about Latinos, we brace for an attack from those who seek to blame immigrants for their own economic woes, despite the fact that the article confirms what we and many others have been saying all along--the Obama administration has engaged in an unprecedented amount of immigration law enforcement. But as Noam Scheiber points out, it's U.S. citizens, not immigrants, who are the primary Latino beneficiaries of the job growth in the economic recovery. Many people are surprised to learn that U.S. citizens are now the majority of the Latino workforce. Additionally, U.S.-born workers either benefit or are not affected at all when immigrants find work. In the article, Giovanni Peri, a well-respected expert on the economic effects of immigration, sums up the virtuous cycle this way: "More construction workers generates the need for more supervisors, more managers to coordinate them, more contractors to give them work."

But while the availability of jobs is improving, more needs to be done to raise the quality of those jobs to ensure that the benefits of the economic recovery are more widely shared. In a poll conducted by NCLR last summer, a majority of Latino voters said that they have not seen improvement in their household finances since the Great Recession. Fifty percent added that they are worried that they may not have enough money to pay their basic bills. Indeed, wages are growing slowly, but Latinos are more likely to earn poverty-level wages. This stems in part from a long-term trend in which wages have not kept pace with worker productivity. A White House report points this out directly: "In 2014, average real wages for production and nonsupervisory workers increased 0.8 percent after increasing 0.7 percent in 2013. Although not sufficient, these increases are a marked improvement from the 2000s, including the pre Great Recession years of 2001 to 2007, when real wage growth averaged 0.5 percent a year." In addition, there has been a marked rise in part-time work--even among workers who would rather work full-time.

Clearly the U.S. economy is moving in the right direction, but more needs to be done to build on the gains of hard work to ensure that all workers reap the benefits of the improving economy. These include:

  • Raising the federal minimum wage to restore its value to keep a full-time working family out of poverty. This should be at the top of Congress's agenda.
  • Stepping up enforcement of labor laws, including basic health and safety protections, to make sure that workers do not pay with their lives--as many Latino workers do--for a day's wage.
  • Making permanent the 2009 expansions of the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which keep 16 million people out of deep poverty.

The good news is that Latinos and other communities are finally benefitting from the protracted economic recovery. It will be even better news if we make policy changes such as those above and make the investments necessary--as well as enacting comprehensive immigration reform, which will end wage abuse and put all workers on a level playing field. We need to secure this still-fragile recovery among communities of color by maximizing what they can earn, create, and contribute to further benefit our economy and the well-being of all Americans.

This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.