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Houston Chronicle

Hispanics Need Bush To Live Up To His Promises


February 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Houston Chronicle. All Rights Reserved.

President Bush campaigned as a ''compassionate conservative'' and promised to be ''everybody's president,'' pledges he reaffirmed in his inaugural address. For Latinos, that's an excellent sign.

More than one-third of Hispanic families struggle every day with low wages, lack of basic benefits such as health insurance, and housing and utility costs that outpace the modest income gains of recent years, no matter how hard they work. They need for Bush to be their president.

A clear test of the Bush administration's compassion will come soon, in the form of the president's budget and tax priorities. This presidency, at the dawning of a new century and coming at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, presents an extraordinary opportunity to help narrow the gap between the ''haves'' and ''have nots,'' extend access to health care to all and assure a tax cut for all working families.

Despite two decades of nearly continuous economic growth, millions of Hispanics, particularly children, cannot count on the basic necessities of life -- food, shelter and medical care. More than one-third of Latino children (34 percent) live in poverty. Nearly one-third (30 percent) lack any form of health insurance coverage.

About one-third of Hispanic children live in inadequate and/or overcrowded housing, and most of their families pay more than half of their incomes on rent. More than 4 million Latino children don't get enough to eat, or don't have adequate, healthy diets because their families can't afford it.

Latino children are less likely to be enrolled in early child development programs, which research shows is the key to later educational success, and almost 30 percent of Hispanic children don't graduate from high school. The overwhelming majority of these Latino children come from working families, and most of these families do not receive government help.

Fortunately, several interventions have proved to be effective in addressing these problems, and President Bush has the opportunity to invest in these efforts by:

*Assuring that everybody benefits from proposed tax cuts.

    The best way to do this will be to make the president's proposed $1,000-per-child tax credit refundable. There are families that may not make enough to pay income tax but are still hit hard by payroll and Social Security taxes. Through ''refundability,'' all families with children -- not just the well-to-do -- would receive the benefit. Without refundability, about 6 million Latino children will be shut out of the tax bill. With refundability, they and their families will get a desperately needed boost, and perhaps 1 million of them, almost all from working families, will be lifted out of poverty entirely.

*Supporting bipartisan efforts to expand access to health insurance.

    Particularly as the economic slowdown threatens to push more U.S. workers off the private health insurance rolls, the government should respond with initiatives that quickly and efficiently reduce the number of uninsured.

*Restoring basic health and nutrition benefits for legal immigrants.

    There has been widespread, bipartisan support recently for restoring the ''safety net'' for immigrants, particularly children, who are excluded from help no matter how needy. At a time of record budget surpluses, there is no excuse for denying essential services to kids simply because of where they were born.

*Ensuring essential investments in effective education, affordable housing and child care programs.

    These supports provide working poor families, adults trying hard to leave welfare and those most vulnerable to an economic downturn with the help they need to build a better future.

''Leaving no child behind'' means making Head Start and other early childhood learning efforts accessible to every preschool child, and ensuring that older children have safe environments for supplemental learning and recreation in non-school hours. Helping families who can afford it to buy homes and increasing support to those who can't will assure progress toward our national goal of safe, decent housing for everyone.

The federal budget surplus is about $5 trillion over the next 10 years. We have the resources to pay down the debt, protect Social Security and Medicare, and make needed investments in those children and families -- if we spend wisely.

These proposals would not only help struggling Latino families, they would promote our country's future economic security and well-being. In less than two decades -- around the time children born today begin to enter the workforce -- one in four children in the United States will be Hispanic. If he's truly going to be remembered as their president then, Bush needs to act now.

Raul Yzaguirre is president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, based in Washington, D.C.

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