Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004
Shaping New Possibilities for Latino Children and the Nations's Future
Sonia M. Perez
One of the most profound demographic shifts in the United States during the past two decades has been the dramatic increase in the Hispanic population,1 driven both by high birth rates relative to other racial and ethnic groups, and by immigration. (See the article by Hernandez in this journal issue.) The Hispanic population grew by 58% from 1990 to 2000, and in 2003 became the largest "minority" community in the country with a total of 38.8 million people. Today, about one in eight Americans is of Hispanic origin. Although 70% of Latinos live in five states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois), over the past decade the population has grown significantly in other parts of the country, including both the South and the nation's heartland.
Two characteristics of the Latino population are especially noteworthy. First, Latinos are a young population. More than one-third are under 18 years of age and almost half are under age 25.2 Both the size of the Latino population and its youthfulness mean that the well-being of the Hispanic community--and especially of Latino children--matters to the future economic and social status of the United States as a whole.
Second, although more than half of Latinos--and 85% of Hispanic children--were born in the United States,3 recent data from the Urban Institute show that one in ten Latino children lives in a "mixed-status" household in which both immigrant and native-born Latinos reside.4 Thus, policies and programs that focus on immigrants are likely to have consequences for Hispanic children, whether or not they themselves are immigrants.
Many Latinos--as is true of almost all Americans--have immigrant origins. Yet, as was the case with previous waves of immigrants to this country, the children of Latino immigrants were born in the United States, and their outcomes will profoundly affect America's future. To this end, the following discussion highlights three areas that are key to promoting the future productivity and well-being of this growing segment of America's children: education, health, and economic status.
Latinos now represent the second-largest segment of the school-aged population in the United States (after non-Hispanic whites). Latino parents recognize that education is critical to their children's opportunities in life,5 yet the portrait of Hispanic education today is decidedly mixed. Compared with other racial/ethnic groups, Latino children are less likely to be enrolled in preschool or to complete high school. Also, many Latino children are not proficient with the English language.
Despite the nation's recent emphasis on the importance of early childhood education to later academic success, three- and four-year-old Latino children are the least likely of all children to be enrolled in such programs (36%, compared to 64% of black, and 46% of white children in 2000).6 Similarly, Latino children are the least likely to participate in Head Start.7 At the other end of the educational pipeline, data show that only about 60% of Latino students are completing high school, compared with almost 90% of both white and black students.8
Another educational issue of concern is the fact that the nation's schools now serve more than five million students who are English language learners (referred to as "limited English proficient," or LEP, in federal law and regulations),9 and nearly 80% of these English language learners speak Spanish as their first language.10 Yet there is a dearth of information on the most effective practices to serve these students. In particular, very few large-scale assessments are being developed that are appropriate for English language learners, which is worrisome since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires schools to improve instruction and outcomes for these children as measured primarily through test scores.11 More appropriate assessments are especially needed in states where an increasing number of English language learners is a new phenomenon. In the past, such students tended to be concentrated in traditionally Hispanic states, such as California and New York. Increasingly, however, English language learners now are present in many states in the Midwest and Southeast regions of the country. As the NCLB requires all states to help all limited English proficient students meet the same academic benchmarks as their English-proficient peers, those states with new and growing Hispanic populations must learn quickly how to serve the increasing numbers of English language learners in their schools.
Young Latinos--who by 2020 are projected to account for one in every five children in the United States--face a number of significant health challenges, including disproportionately high rates of diabetes,12 asthma,13 HIV/AIDS,14 and the highest teen birth rate in the nation.15 Many of these concerns could be prevented or more effectively managed given access to quality health care. Unfortunately, myriad barriers--especially the lack of health insurance--often stand between Latinos and their ability to access such care.
For more than a decade, Latino children have been, by far, the group of American children most likely to be uninsured.16 In 2001, 24% of Latino children lacked health insurance of any kind, compared to 14% of black and 7% of white children,17 in part because, compared to their peers, they are less likely to receive health coverage through their parents' jobs. In 2001, 41% of Latino children were covered by employment-based insurance, compared to 74% of non-Hispanic white children, and 51% of non-Hispanic black children.18 Moreover, the major reason for high uninsurance among Latinos is not unemployment, but employment in jobs with low wages and no benefits, in industries such as construction, agriculture, and service. In fact, almost nine in ten uninsured Latinos (87%) are from working families.19
Lack of medical coverage among Latinos also is due in part to current laws that ban immigrants from federally- funded public health programs if they arrived in this country after August 22, 1996. Even when children are citizens themselves, those in immigrant families are much more likely to be uninsured than those in native- born families.20 Other barriers to the health system include high costs of health care, a lack of linguistically and culturally competent providers, and inadequate outreach efforts to enroll eligible Latinos in public health programs.
Poverty can result in serious consequences. Research has shown that child poverty is associated with poor health, school failure, drug use, and teenage pregnancy, among other social risks. Yet poverty among Latino children has been a serious problem for several decades. In 2002, 29.3% of all poor families nationwide were Latino.21 The poverty rate for Latino children reached a high of 40.3% in 1996. Although there has been a notable decline since then, Census data show that in 2002, 28% of Latino children still were poor--almost three times the poverty rate of non-Hispanic white children (9.5%). Compared with other racial/ethnic groups, Latino families are less financially secure across a number of indicators, including unemployment rates, homeownership, and net worth. (See Box 1.)
Latino child poverty is especially troubling because a significant share of poor Latino children live in two-parent families with at least one working parent.22 As a result, current efforts to reduce poverty through marriage promotion and increased employment are not likely to be as successful with Latino families as they might be with other racial/ethnic groups.
Ensuring the well-being of Latino children should be a national priority. In about ten years, 35% of Hispanics who are children today will be workers and taxpayers. Their educational preparation, their labor, and their productivity will be called upon to keep the economy vibrant and sound. Indeed, the stability and growth of the future economy greatly depend on maximizing the educational and employment outcomes of Latino children.
The economic case is compelling. If Latinos had higher education levels, the positive results would be measurable for all Americans. A study by the RAND Corporation shows that Hispanics who now have a high school education would earn between $400,000 and $500,000 more over their lifetime if they had a bachelor's degree; and increasing the college completion rate of today's Hispanic 18-year-olds by as little as three percentage points would increase social insurance payments by $600 million.23 Similarly, a recent analysis finds that raising the educational attainment of Latinos in the California labor force would result in an increase of $79 million in state income tax revenue.24 The potential gains in societal equity, community strength, and social cohesion are equally powerful.
To shape a healthy future for Latino children, the following principles should guide efforts to respond to the disparities that have surfaced from the nation's demographic shifts:
1. Focus on facts, not on ideology. Proposals that restrict immigrants' access to supports and services have not helped to increase the overall economic security of Hispanic working families. Similarly, the "abstinence only" approaches to teen sex education ignore the research on how to teach Latino youth important messages about taking responsibility for their behaviors and preventing disproportionately high rates of deadly diseases like AIDS. The socioeconomic and health disparities between Latinos and others will not address themselves over time unless concrete steps are taken to design programs and policies relevant to the challenges faced by Latino families.
2. Go to the source. Communities "own" problems, but they also "own" solutions. Reversing the pressing and potentially explosive trends for Latinos is not solely a government responsibility. Latino families and adults must play an active role in calling attention to--and taking the lead on--addressing these issues, especially educational preparation. Latino national and community-based organizations, as well as research institutions, bear a special responsibility for providing leadership and expanding efforts to document challenges and advocate responses. At the same time, policymakers and other stakeholders must ensure that there are resources and a receptive environment to facilitate the development of community responses.
3. Build upon successes. One of the frustrations for practitioners is the repeated attempts to reinvent the wheel rather than looking to the many examples of effective programs across the country. For example, many schools facing a host of socioeconomic barriers have been demonstrated to be effective for Latino students. 25 There are also increasing numbers of Latinos with college degrees and a growing Latino middle class. As communities become larger and more diverse, stakeholders should seek to learn from, invest in, and expand such successes.
4. Focus on long-lasting change. Public policy can often be shortsighted, responding to an issue of the day without regard for long-term implications. As early as 1991, the Census Bureau projected significant Hispanic population growth, yet in the past year, national media reports have reacted to data on population increases with surprise, and some local communities are scrambling to diversify teaching and police forces and other social institutions. The nation must be wiser about planning for demographic changes that will affect the future and about investing resources in areas where they will have the greatest impact. Creating and supporting local leadership in Latino and other communities, and looking to models with records of proven success, are crucial in this regard.
5. Remove structural roadblocks. Good ideas in public policy often are limited in their execution. In 1997, Congress passed the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which allocated a total of $48 billion over ten years to expand health insurance coverage for children in poor or near-poor families. Following enactment of SCHIP, the number of uninsured children declined, including the number of uninsured Hispanic children. Nevertheless, the rate of uninsurance among Latino children remains disproportionately high. In 2000, 35% of all uninsured children were Hispanic, even though Hispanic children accounted for only 16.5% of all children.26 Many Latino families do not realize that their children may be eligible for this government-sponsored program. Further efforts are needed to increase awareness, to expand roles for community-based organizations involved in reducing uninsurance and increasing access, and to improve state agencies' credibility, access, and long-term commitment to minority communities. Similarly, NCLB contains several important provisions (such as parent involvement strategies) that could help to improve Latino education, but further efforts--and funding--are needed for their implementation.
Four years into the 21st century, demographic changes and increasing racial/ethnic diversity show that society cannot afford to talk about Latinos on the one hand, and the rest of Americans on the other. The nation's economic and social prosperity will depend on how well Latino children are prepared to lead the country forward. Fortunately, the issues facing Hispanic children are not intractable, and improvements in their educational, health, and economic well-being are easily within the nation's grasp. All Americans stand to gain from shaping new possibilities for Latino children, as their future is the nation's future.