Tuesday, April 12, 2011

As Latinos go, so goes the U.S.

Hispanics are golden, as in golden opportunity.
By Mary Sanchez, The Kansas City Star 

Publisher's Note:  This commentary first appeared in the Kansas City Star.
Pundits have discussed the “browning” of America for a good two decades now. By that they mean the growth and geographic spread of the Latino population in the U.S.

But the unveiling of the latest U.S. Census figures marked a tipping point: Latinos are a demographic that cannot be ignored or taken for granted. Exceeding almost all prior estimates, the number of Hispanic Americans now tops 50 million people, comprising 16 percent of the population. By 2050, they will likely be one-third of the nation’s population.

And that, mi amigo, portends opportunity. So enough talk of “browning.” Let’s rework the lingo. Hispanics are golden, as in golden opportunity. That is, if we seize rather than squander this moment as a country. Our destiny as a nation is tied up with Latinos’ destiny as an ethnic group. All Americans have an interest in seeing them integrated into national life and prospering along with everybody else.

First, we need to get past the misconceptions and generalizations rattling around about Hispanics. The unprecedented 43 percent growth in the Latino population in the last decade did not come primarily from immigration. The largest factor in that increase was childbirths. “Compared with 2000, the Hispanic birth rate increased 14 percent, while both the U.S. population and black birth rates declined 2 percent,” according to a Bloomberg analysis of Census statistics.

So let’s move away from viewing Latinos merely as newcomers. Nearly three in four Hispanics are U.S. citizens, not interlopers “taking” something from America and “our way of life,” as one hears too often from politicians and commentators who have something to gain from frightening listeners.

Latinos, even those several generations removed from their immigrant forebearers, maintain a strong work ethic. A new report out by the U.S. Department of Labor notes Hispanics make up 15 percent of the nation’s workforce, almost equal their proportion of the entire population. Latino men have the highest workforce participation rate of any group.

Soak that in. Hispanics are the worker bees of the nation, and they will continue to be in the future. They’re also highly entrepreneurial. Hispanic-owned companies grew by 43.7 percent from 2002 to 2007, compared to 14.5 percent among other groups. As a relatively young population, they will comprise a larger and larger proportion of the working population, especially as older Americans retire.

Things have changed a bit since the heyday of European immigration a century ago. More and more, to prosper, to enter the middle class, that Holy Grail of the American psyche, you need an education. A college education, ideally.

To thrive, Latinos — like all Americans — need to be educated and trained. Problem is, only 44 percent of Hispanic students finish high school. And even if they get to college, they have lower completion rates. A 2010 report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation questioned whether the United States would ever reclaim its status as the world’s best-educated country until Hispanics’ success is addressed. It’s simply a matter of the numbers.

Yet, like a rerun of past episodes of anti-immigrant backlash, the current upheaval in the U.S. economy has only seemed to make some Americans more narrow-minded. Movement to undercut, not enhance Latinos’ shift toward solidly middle-class status can be seen in efforts to make English the official language, which often eliminate bridge programs for people still gaining fluency. The same attitude can be seen in instances where aging baby boomers, their children already out of the nest, quash government efforts that aid low-income minority communities with higher proportions of school-age children.

That’s a mood we need to defuse. As Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, put it in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: “New Americans didn’t run Wall Street into the ground. New Americans didn’t destroy our savings. Bashing new Americans does nothing to make our economy stronger or win the global competition for jobs and opportunity.” Bravo.

We can fret about the future demographics of the country all we want, but the bottom line is inescapable. As the fortunes of Latinos go, so go the fortunes of the country.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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