03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Latinos and the Unheard Third

I was born in 1948, on the forward edge of baby boomers. If it's one thing we have in common as a group, it is that we almost all had parents who talked endlessly (or so it seemed to me as an adolescent) about what they and their parents had to deal with during the Great Depression. That economic disaster, World War II, and the McCarthy period shaped my parent's world view.

Cold water flats, rent parties, stories of my father stealing potatoes and cooking them in tin cans were all part of childhood. The stories were met by my sister and me with the same look of resigned tolerance that must be hardwired into adolescents and teenagers since the beginning of humankind. Here they go again about how tough it was.

So it was with a kind of jolt when I began reading the most recent poll result from our Unheard Third survey concerning what's happening to low-wage Latinos in the current recession and realized they're living what my parents went through.

CSS's Unheard Third survey polls over 1,200 people by phone during the summer of each year, using a leading national polling firm. It focuses on the poor (under $18,000 a year for a family of three) and the near poor (between $18,000 and $36,000 a year for a family of three). In New York City, these groups make up over a third of our eight million people. Because of the large sample size, the poll represents the gold standard in tracking how people are doing economically in the city and has become one of the most authoritative indicators of what's happening with the working poor.

This year's poll paints a grim picture of what's happening to the poor and near poor in the current recession. But the story for low-income Latinos is truly dire. In responding to our telephone survey, 26 percent of low-income Latinos reported losing their jobs in the past year, 31 percent had their wages reduced, and 70 percent had less than $500 in total savings.

What's going on here? It seems that Latino workers -- both native born and immigrant -- are heavily concentrated in industries hard hit in the recession: construction, manufacturing, and retail and, in addition, they represent the group with the lowest rate of unionization.

This is a crisis that won't go away quickly. While recent figures show that the recession may officially have ended, virtually all the experts agree that unemployment is likely to continue to increase even after the worst of the financial crisis has passed. That means for New York particularly we have urgent needs to ensure that those who can't find work get as many supports as possible to get them through this period. There was no stigma during the Great Depression for getting government help for jobs, housing, and basic needs. We have to repair safety net programs torn apart in the welfare reform battles.

The levels of unemployment for Latinos and African Americans are now approaching those of the Depression -- at its depths, 24 percent of New Yorkers were out of work. Longer term, this economic crisis indicates that no group needs the protection of unionization more than low-wage workers.

Unions can provide higher wages, benefits, health insurance, and a cushion for unemployment that is currently not available for a Latino population that is fast accumulating stories of their struggles that will be told to the next generation of disbelieving adolescents who will hopefully be in much better shape than their parents -- if we install the reforms that should have been made permanent in the last depression.