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The Hispanic Moment

09/17/2013 01:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2013
  • Marta Tienda Professor at Princeton University and Expert in Social Inequality

A 1988, congressional joint resolution proclaimed September 15 to October 15 of each year Hispanic Heritage Month -- a largely symbolic gesture to recognize the many contributions Latinos have made to the life and culture of the United States.

Hispanics are a formidable demographic group that can potentially help shore up the economy as baby boomers and retire in huge numbers -- a bonus that could multiply as the children and grandchildren of immigrants enter the workforce. This is not guaranteed; by itself, size does not confer power or define social destiny. Rather, policy needs to be crafted to define, "The Hispanic Moment," to ensure that Latinos can best contribute to economically.

Hispanics have been part of the U.S. landscape for centuries -- arriving almost 100 years prior to Jamestown; indeed, California's first Constitution was penned in both English and Spanish. That said, when Hispanic Heritage Week was established in 1968, Latinos comprised less than 5 percent of the U.S. population and were regionally concentrated in the Southwest, New York and Florida. Today they make up nearly 17 percent of the population and are geographically scattered across the nation. Only Mexico, with a population of 116 million, has a larger Hispanic population than the United States now at 52 million.

And this number is expected to grow. A relatively young population (with a median age of 28 years, compared to 42, 33 and 36 years for native whites, blacks and Asians, respectively), nearly half of Hispanic women are in their reproductive years, compounding growth of Latinos through fertility. Of course, overall growth may be tempered by a slowdown in the birthrate (which has already begun) as well as the immigration rate (immigration from Mexico, the largest flow from any single country, came to a virtual standstill in the aftermath of the Great Recession.) That said, despite intense media attention on unauthorized immigration, the children and grandchildren of Latin American immigrants account for half of U.S. population growth.

These demographic trends need to be analyzed against the backdrop of today's economic realities:

  1. They are unfolding during a period of income inequality and stubborn labor market insecurity;
  2. They coincide with a profound transformation in the social context of childbearing and childrearing;
  3. Hispanic youth -- who make up one-third of the entire Latino population -- are coming of age in an aging society, where social expenditures on seniors often compete with investments in youth.

But if handled correctly, this demographic shift can have a happy ending for all -- the nation, the economy and Latinos themselves. The Hispanic youth bulge affords the nation an opportunity to boost productivity as large numbers of Hispanic youth enter the labor force. This "demographic dividend" depends critically on whether educational and social investments are made so that young workers are equally or more productive than the retirees they replace.

This is not happening right now. And the results are apparent and predictable: children of Latino immigrants are falling behind their peers academically, dropping out of school more frequently and going to college far less often. Without a college degree or even a high school diploma, Hispanic youth land low-wage jobs when they become adults. Among second generation Latinos, incomes are stagnating, and non-marital births and divorce rates are rising. If these trends continue, we are likely to see a huge and permanent Latino underclass, trapped in a cycle of poverty that becomes increasingly difficult to escape -- and will have squandered the "demographic dividend."

It doesn't have to be that way. Solid research, amply documented in an immigration-themed issue of the journal Future of Children, points the way to a different future where second and third generation Latino youth are well prepared to become productive workers.

High-quality preschool programs. We need to provide more and better early childhood education for low-income immigrant children. Because their mothers often have little education themselves and speak English poorly, second generation Latino children fall behind before they even start school. There is a huge body of evidence that high-quality (and the key is quality) preschool programs can boost English language and math skills, with lifelong benefits.

English language instruction. School-age immigrant children must master English. Students who are not proficient in English fall behind their peers, and if they do not catch up by third grade, they stay behind. Learning English in the early grades is crucial to ensuring academic success at all levels. But instruction must be by highly qualified ESL teachers; most U.S. teachers who have English learners in their classrooms have no special training to teach these children.

Affordable college. We must help low-income students afford a college education. For Latino immigrant children -- and for the U.S. economy as a whole -- the stakes are huge. By age 30, the average difference in household income between a high school dropout and a college graduate amounts to $60,000 annually. Think of what this means in lost tax revenue: over a working career, higher salaries represent a formidable boost in income tax revenue that can be used to support our aging population.

The window of opportunity to realize a Hispanic "demographic dividend" is not open-ended. Already the Hispanic youth bulge has begun to shrink as native and foreign-born Latinas scale down the number of children they have. We all win if we embrace, "The Hispanic Moment." We must invest in second and third generation Latino youth and simultaneously promote their assent to the middle class and create workers to offset the costs of a graying society.

The stakes are high for everyone. Failure to embrace, "The Hispanic Moment," will compromise the future of the nation.

Marta Tienda, a Professor at Princeton University, is an expert in race and ethnic differences and social inequality. She served as an advisor and commentator for the landmark PBS series Latino Americans premiering September 17.

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