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Pope Francis Puts Spotlight on Hispanic Poverty

By Brigitte Vaughn and Marta Alvira-Hammond

As Pope Francis brings attention to the plight of the poor during his visits to the U.S. and Cuba, the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families (Center) reflects on Hispanic poverty in our country. We look back to the first visit of any Pope to the U.S., which occurred in 1965 with Pope Paul VI and came shortly after President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty in January 1964. In the following 50 years, how have Hispanics fared economically?

How has the War on Poverty affected Hispanics in the U.S.?

At the Center, we strive to fill important gaps in our understanding of the economic experience of Hispanic families, beyond the characterization of poverty. We do this by considering dynamics of income change and the ways in which the stability of economic resources affects family and child well-being.

That said, poverty is a reality for many Hispanics in the U.S. Newly released Census data illustrate that more than 46 million Americans lived in poverty in 2014 and, of those, more than 13 million are Hispanic. This translates to almost one in four U.S. Hispanics living in poverty. It’s hard to believe, given the strong data infrastructure we have in the U.S. today, but until 1970, there were no Census questions pertaining to Hispanic ethnicity. Therefore, we do not have reliable estimates of U.S. Hispanics living in poverty when the War on Poverty was declared in 1964, but that time in history did coincide with a strong surge in immigration, particularly from Latin America. Since 1970, the U.S. Hispanic population has grown from 9.6 to 55.4 million.

Poverty among Hispanic Adults

Looking at trends in poverty since the 1970s, a mixed picture emerges. Hispanic poverty rates (among adults) have remained fairly stable. In 1972, 23 percent of Hispanic adults (ages 18–64) were living in poverty. This figure was roughly 20 percent in 2014. Over those 42 years, the U.S. Hispanic population has increased nearly sixfold. As such, more than half of the 22 million-person increase in official poverty between 1972 and 2014 was among Hispanics.

Poverty among Hispanic Children

When we look at poverty among Hispanic children since the 1970s, we see some fluctuations. The poverty rate among Hispanic children (under age 18) has hovered around 30 percent since the 1980s, and stood at about 32 percent in 2014.

But because of the tremendous growth in the Hispanic population, the number of Hispanic children in poverty (about 5.7 million in 2014) is higher than all other racial and ethnic groups of children.

Protections against Hispanic Poverty

The good news is that while Hispanic poverty has not declined substantially, it has not increased as much as we might expect given increases in immigration and changes in the composition of the Hispanic population (e.g., recent immigrants, unmarried, etc.).

In fact, a recent study by Stanford University researchers found that one of the main reasons for this relative stability has been improvements in education among Hispanics. The high school dropout rate has declined substantially over the past four decades (from 34 percent in 1966 to 13 percent in 2012), and the percentage of Hispanics with a bachelor’s degree or higher has doubled since 1980, from 7.7 percent to 14 percent.

Other contributors cited by the Stanford study for the relative stability of Hispanic poverty rates include lower fertility among Hispanics (meaning fewer children to support with available resources) and more households with an employed adult. Since 1990, Hispanics have consistently had the lowest percentage of individuals not in the labor force (foreign-born in particular) compared with other groups; the second lowest only to Asians in 1980.

Continuing the Progress

Hispanics have made progress in education since the War on Poverty, and these gains—along with Hispanics’ continued, relatively high, rates of labor force participation—have helped keep poverty rates stable. Still, too many Hispanic children and families are living in poverty. What more can be done?

We know that college completion yields a wide range of benefits for Hispanics (and others). As the Stanford study notes, smart investments in education can help Hispanics achieve continued economic success and reduced rates of poverty.

The focus on Hispanics’ education should start long before college. Currently, Hispanic infants are nearly three times more likely to be born into poverty than non-Hispanic white infants. Enrollment in early care and education programs among Hispanic children has increased (from 39 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2014), which matters because these programs can help children be better prepared to start kindergarten, and are beneficial to children’s development and educational success.

We also know that Hispanics in poverty are less likely to access some of the government supports that are available to them, which can prevent eligible children and families from achieving educational outcomes or maintaining more economic stability. Efforts to improve access might therefore focus on foreign-born Hispanics and their children—the majority of whom are U.S.-born citizens—to ensure that foreign-born Hispanics parents are aware of the resources available to their families.

Changes to immigration policy also have the potential to reduce Hispanic poverty. Reform proposals vary widely, with each likely to have a different impact on Hispanic poverty.  The last major immigration reform was enacted under President Reagan in 1986, providing legal status to large numbers of undocumented workers.  By the early 1990’s, naturalized workers achieved wage gains between five and 16 percent higher than they would have without legal status. This is attributed to immigrants being able to search for higher paying work.

The U.S. has changed dramatically since the War on Poverty and Hispanics have made some progress, but there is the potential to make real reductions in their rates of poverty in the years ahead.  Such declines would not only benefit Hispanics, but all Americans.  Given the size and growth of the Latino population in the U.S., the economic success of our country is closely tied with the economic success of Hispanics.

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