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Education Is Key To Latino Success In The Work Force, Study Says

by Ricado Vazquez

July 6, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

 "Latinas who earned a college degree in the late 1990s are making more money than either black or white women with a college degree." -- Sonia Perez, NCLR

Although recent headlines have focused on the persistent poverty among Latino workers, it's a mixed bag when it comes to Hispanics in the work force.

While Latinas with college degrees are seeing the payoff of higher education, Hispanic men generally hold low-paying jobs with few possibilities of upward mobility.

These are some of the findings detailed in a recently released, book-length study by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) titled, "Moving Up the Economic Ladder: Latino Workers and the Nation’s Future Prosperity."

The two-year study, conducted with the cooperation of more than twelve academics, links the future of the United States economy to the strength and potential of the increasing Latino labor force.

The study points out that the Hispanic population, because of its young age, is participating in the workforce in record numbers. But despite the effort they’re putting forth, many have not benefited from the current economic boom.

For example, in 1997, 21 percent of Latino married couples with children were below the poverty line, as compared to six percent of whites and nine percent of black families in the same category.

However, these are figures for the Latino community as a whole. In order to underscore the differences among the various Hispanic groups, and to get a more subtle understanding of complicated data, spoke with Sonia Perez, NCLR’s deputy vice president for research and editor of the study.

Perez emphasized that the study showed the need to invest in Latino workers to make sure that we enhance the quality of the low-wage market and give people the opportunity to move up the economic ladder. What were the most salient points in the study?

Perez: The biggest point is that Latinos are a very active part of the U.S. work force. And because of their increasing population and the fact that they tend to be a young population, they’re going to be an even more critical component of the work force in the future.

We wanted to underscore that Latinos are participating in the labor force at a high rate. Men are especially likely to be working. They continue to contribute economically to the growth of the United States.

In terms of good news, we see some bright spots with young [Latinas] who earned a college degree in the late 1990’s; they are making more money than either black or white women with a college degree. This is really important because we’re starting to see the payoff to our education. And the bad news?

Perez: Part of the problem is that we continue to enter the labor force at the low end of the labor market. We get into the work force and then we get stuck. This is particularly true for Latino men. They tend to be in jobs that don’t pay a lot. They tend to have no benefits. Those are some of the kinds of things that we need to bring out so we can start to remedy them. Did the fact that 21 percent of Hispanic married couples are poor surprise you?

Perez: We’ve been tracking these data for a long time. We’ve been looking at the trends in poverty and income for more than a decade. We weren’t particularly surprised by it. But I think it’s important that people begin to recognize that when you talk about poverty, it isn’t just about people who don’t work. There are many Latinos who are in the workforce -— some of them working two jobs, three jobs —- and yet they can’t make enough to maintain their families above the poverty line.

Part of what we’re trying to emphasize here in this study is that people tend to pay a lot of attention to the low education levels of Latinos, but the other part of the picture is the fact that the kind of economy we’re in is creating jobs that don’t pay very well.

We’re going through this restructuring of the economy and we put too much blame on Latino workers and what they bring to the work force and we have to start paying attention to what they find when they get there. These are aggregate data, but did you find that in different cities and different groups of Latinos, the levels of income and poverty rates vary?

Perez: We looked as much as possible at subgroup differences. We looked at Mexicans, Cubans, Central Americans and Puerto Ricans.

We found that Mexican and Central American men are the most likely to be in the labor force. However, they have the lowest education levels. So they’re the ones that tend to be in those jobs that don’t pay well.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Out of all the Latino population, [Cubans] tend to be older, which means they have more work experience. They have more skills, and that partly accounts for why they do better economically.

Also, we know the profile of Cubans. Those who came to the United States tended to be professional and tended to be educated. So they had sort of an edge in the workforce already.

For the Puerto Rican population, they have slightly higher levels of education than the other groups, and that has really helped them in the economy. They’re not as likely to be in the work force, but when they are working, the jobs they’re in generally pay well, have benefits, and give them the opportunity for some economic mobility. Do you think too much emphasis has been given to immigration and the idea that new immigrants are lowering wages?

Perez: Some of the data are hard to get, but we looked at native-born versus foreign-born Latinos. What we found was that foreign-born Latinos were more likely to have low education levels, but also more likely to be in the work force.

It’s kind of a paradox because you don’t have as much skill, but you’re putting forward a lot of work effort. We also find that immigrants have higher home ownership rates. So they’re bringing some of these positive contributions, which people don’t tend to talk about.

Native-born Latinos have higher levels of education, which puts them in a better position in the labor force. But if you compare all around, there is still quite a large gap in terms of education and economic status compared to whites and the general population.

Emphasis on immigration takes away our attention from the hard questions such as, what do we do about low wages? What do we do about jobs that don’t offer benefits like health insurance and pension plans? What do we do about jobs that don’t give you the opportunity for growth?

It used to be that you'd go in the labor force in a factory or in manufacturing and you could begin to move up the economic ladder. The jobs that we find now, people come in but don’t move up. We have to do something about that because it’s detrimental not only for Latino workers but for the U.S. economy. Education seems to be the factor that ties it all together.

Perez: Yes, it does. It’s the most critical factor. Latinos who have college degrees are seeing the payoff to their education. They’re doing better and starting to get more opportunity. They still don’t earn as much as whites with college degrees. So we still have a problem there. But we obviously have opportunity if we have a higher educated work force. If there’s one thing you want people to take away from this report, what would it be?

Perez: That the economic situation of Latinos isn’t just our concern, it’s an American concern. We’re part of this work force, we’re part of the economy. We contribute and have a lot of economic strength. If we just invest a little bit more in ensuring that Latinos have higher education levels and opportunities, the whole country will benefit.

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