New York Times, October 1, 2007: The Rio Grande Rises

Posted on

The Rio Grande Rises



ACCORDING to a recent report from the Census Bureau, poverty fellfrom about 12.6 percent in 2005 to about 12.3 percent last year. That۪sabout 500,000 fewer people living in poverty, the first statisticallysignificant decline since 2000. (In 2006, the poverty line was $20,614for a family of four.)

As usual, there was much commentary in the news media aboutpoverty۪s intractability: today۪s poverty rate is hardly lower than itwas in 1968, when it was about 12.8 percent.

But a closer look at the experience of one group, Hispanics, tells avery different story. As a group, Hispanics are enjoying substantialeconomic progress. Their poverty rate has dropped by a third from itshigh 12 years ago, falling from 30.7 percent in 1994 to 20.6 percent in2006.

These numbers come from the Census Bureau۪s Current PopulationSurvey, widely used by pro- and anti-immigration groups alike as areasonably reliable source of information about illegal as well aslegal immigrants. They show that although Hispanics still have a longway to go to achieve the full promise of the American Dream, as a groupthey are clearly on the economic up escalator.

In the past 30 years, the United States has experienced a tremendousamount of immigration, predominantly Hispanic. In 1975, a little morethan 11 million Hispanics made up just over 5 percent of thepopulation. Today۪s nearly 45 million Hispanics are now about 15percent of the country.

This influx of Hispanics has resulted in a higher poverty rate inthe United States, mainly because many immigrants are low-skilledworkers and women with young children. If the proportion of Hispanicsin the population in 2006 had been the same as it was in 1975, then theoverall American poverty rate in 2006 would have been 7 percent lower(11.4 percent rather than 12.3 percent). That would be 2.4 millionfewer people, all Hispanics, in poverty.

This rough calculation leaves out the indirect impact that Hispanicshave had on the job prospects and earnings of other low-skilledworkers, especially African-Americans, probably keeping more of them inpoverty. Economists argue about the size of this effect, but we seeevidence of it all around us.

Consider the Hispanic success in obtaining skilled, blue-collarjobs, as measured by the census category for precision production,craft and repair occupations. From 1994 to 2006, as the total number ofthese jobs grew, the percentage held by whites fell from 79 percent to65 percent. The percentage held by blacks remained constant at about 8percent, and the percentage held by Hispanics more than doubled, risingto 25 percent from 11 percent. As whites left these relativelywell-paid jobs, Hispanics rather than blacks moved into them.

Between 1994, the high point for Hispanic poverty, and 2006, thelast year with comprehensive data, median Hispanic household incomerose 20 percent, from about $31,500 a year in 2006 dollars to about$37,800 a year. The median income of Hispanic individuals rose 32percent, to about $20,500 from about $15,500.

These incomes do not make Hispanics wealthy, of course, but they didallow about 70 percent of them to send remittances home last year.According to the best estimate, the total sent was $45 billion $4billion more than the entire amount distributed to Americans by theEarned Income Tax Credit.

One explanation for this economic progress is increased education.From 1994 to 2005, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics whograduated from high school or obtained a general equivalency diplomarose to about 66 percent from about 56 percent. About 25 percent arenow enrolled in college, up from about 19 percent in 1994. Hispanicsare moving rapidly into many management, professional and otherwhite-collar occupations.

Because of the large and continuing influx of usually low-skilledHispanic immigrants, economists have expected the poverty rate amongHispanics to rise or at least to remain flat. Instead, it is falling.However one feels about immigration, the falling Hispanic poverty ratetestifies to the ability of Hispanic immigrants to take advantage ofthe opportunities that they have found in this country.

Douglas J.Besharov is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for PublicPolicy Research and a professor at the University of Maryland School ofPublic Policy.

« Back to News