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Max Benavidez

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Latinos, Numbers and the Real World

Posted: 08/15/11 08:45 PM ET

We live in a numbers world. Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Latinos now total 50.5 million people, making up 16.3% of the U.S. population, and grew by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, or four times the nation's 9.7 percent growth rate.

For all the excitement over this impressive demographic growth, there's a dispiriting side to the numbers. Eight hundred thousand, mostly Latino, undocumented immigrants have been deported in the past two years and The DREAM Act, which would actually reward our most ambitious young undocumented Latinos, has languished for ten years in the U.S. Congress, losing every time it has come up for a vote

But the disheartening numbers don't stop there: The Census Bureau reported that 25% of Hispanics live in poverty while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in June of this year Hispanic youth unemployment jumped to 35 %. Not too long ago, Johns Hopkins University released a study that says only 64% of Hispanics ending up graduating from high school in 2008 (the last year they had complete graduation totals).

A few weeks ago the Pew Hispanic Center said that Latino wealth dropped by 66% from 2005 to 2009, the largest decrease for any group during the Great Recession. Pew also found that the median wealth of white households is 18 times that of Hispanic households and 20 times that of black households. As the report said, "These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest in the quarter century since the government first published such data, and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession." Pew also noted that "a third of Hispanic and black households had zero or negative net worth in 2009, compared with 15% of white households and that a quarter of all Hispanic and black households in 2009 had no assets other than a vehicle, compared with just 6% of white households."

All big numbers, but what do they really mean? And, what should Latinos do? For starters, I think we need to build from the ground up. Here's why.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously wrote in a Brookings Institution article that the United Nations had estimated "that white Americans, if ranked as a separate nation, would lead the world in well-being, a measure that combines life expectancy, educational achievement, and income. African Americans, in contrast, would rank a depressing twenty-seventh, while Hispanic Americans would rank even lower at thirty-second."

Here in California, the American Human Development Project issued its latest "Measure of America" series in May and we learned that the once Golden State has both the highest and lowest levels of well-being. As the report says, "Nearly a century of human progress separates the best-off and the worst-areas in the state." Some of us are living at amazing 2060 standards of living while others, including many Latinos, are still mired in 1960s-era poverty conditions.

Given the stubborn Great Recession and the crazy political gridlock that's gripped the nation, we are on our own. To build wealth and create assets Latinos need to find models that do the job from the bottom up.

L.A. is often referred to as the Latino capital of the U.S. because more Latinos live here than anywhere else in the nation--nearly 5 million and a place like East L.A. is 97% Latino. For Latinos, a lot of culture, thought and innovation flow out of L.A.

One place to look for inspiration is the Magnolia Place Community Initiative in Los Angeles, which is a five-square mile, 500-block area with 35,000 children that includes the West Adams, Pico Union and North Figueroa neighborhoods. This initiative, which is spearheaded by Children's Bureau CEO Alex Morales in collaboration with scores of partners such as Casey Family Programs, St. John's Well Child and Family Center, Public Counsel, Occidental College, L.A. County Department of Mental Health, Para Los Ninos and First 5 L.A., is in the process of building community and resiliency from the ground up. The Initiative's hub is a 46,000 square foot facility on three acres that offers financial fitness courses, a medical and dental clinic, parenting classes and many other services.

The Magnolia Place Initiative isn't waiting for the economy to improve but executing transformational strategies right now family by family, block by block, so the people who live in the Corridor, 60% of whom are Latino, can learn to be more successful in improving their own lives.

A project like Magnolia Place hopes to be a national model and its proponents realize that it's a long-term process, but it's also taking action now rather than waiting for some economic miracle or political savior to change the world.

Another example of the do-it-yourself spirit is Pan American Bank, the nation's second-oldest Latino-owned bank, whose president Jesse Torres recently oversaw the opening of a banking center targeting the Initiative's population. The bank eliminated checking fees and minimum balances and provides incentives such as contributing $5 for every child who opens a bank account.

Change is tough, but not changing is even worse. Numbers don't lie but it's doubtful that our leaders are even paying attention to these statistics. Things are bad for a lot of Latinos but now is the time to take things into our own hands in a smart way. This is truly our moment to be the game changers.

 
 
 

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