Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Assimilating Down

The trends concerning Hispanic mobility should have us alarmed

If Rep. Luis Gutierrez gets his way, Americans will soon be engaged in another bare-knuckled brawl over the future of U.S. immigration policy. On December 15, the Illinois Democrat unveiled a “comprehensive” reform bill that would create a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who are residing in the United States illegally. Dozens of House members have signed on as co­sponsors. Should President Obama and Democratic leaders launch an aggressive push for the legislation, we can expect a replay of the high-octane immigration battles that erupted in 2006 and 2007. Indeed, the bickering this time around could be even more raucous because of the weak economy. (Last time, the national unemployment rate was below 5 percent.)

A few days before Gutierrez introduced his bill, Pew Hispanic Center released an extensive study of young Hispanics — those aged 16 to 25 — and their uneven assimilation into mainstream American society. Roughly two-thirds were born in the U.S., and about the same proportion have Mexican ancestry. An estimated 22 percent are illegal immigrants. The Pew study found that Hispanic youths appreciate the value of a college degree, believe that hard work pays off, and aspire to have successful careers; but it also highlighted social and educational trends that are hindering Hispanics’ upward mobility — an issue that should be central to any debate over immigration reform.

Pew reckons that in 2008, more than half of young Hispanics had family in­comes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, compared with 38 per­cent of all youths and 29 percent of non-Hispanic white youths. While foreign-born Hispanics had significantly higher poverty rates than their native-born counterparts, 21 percent of young Hispanics from the third generation and later be­longed to poor families, compared with 13 percent of young non-Hispanic whites.

These income gaps are fueled by parental and educational disparities. In 2007, the birth rate among Hispanic women aged 15 to 19 was 82 per 1,000, which was nearly twice the birth rate among all women in that demographic. Hispanics lag well behind the general population when it comes to finishing high school: The dropout rate among Hispanics aged 16 to 24 is 17.2 percent, compared with 9.3 percent among non-Hispanic blacks and 5.7 percent among non-Hispanic whites. That is a result of the staggeringly high dropout rate (32.9 percent) among first-generation Hispanic immigrants.

Close to a third of Hispanics aged 16 to 25 can identify a past or present gang member among their family and friends. Once again, there is a divide between the foreign-born and native-born — but it’s not the divide you might expect. Native-born Hispanic youths (especially those of Mexican descent) are actually much more likely to know a gang member than are young Hispanic immigrants. They’re also more likely to get in fights, carry weapons, and be questioned by the police.

These data raise serious concerns about Hispanic mobility and assimilation. So do recent health-care statistics. Columnist Robert Samuelson points out that His­panics accounted for roughly 60 percent of the growth of America’s uninsured between 1999 and 2008. By the end of that period, Hispanics represented less than 16 percent of the overall U.S. population but 31.4 percent of those who lacked health insurance at any given time, according to the Census Bureau. The 2008 National Health Interview Survey found that 34 percent of non-elderly (under age 65) Hispanics reported being uninsured, compared with just 14 percent of non-elderly non-Hispanics. About 43 percent of those uninsured Hispanics said they had never been insured, compared with only 15 percent of the non-Hispanic uninsured. (Bear in mind that some people who reported being uninsured might have been eligible for or enrolled in Medi­caid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.)

As Samuelson indicates, the uncertainty of immigration flows makes it difficult to predict how much the Democrats’ health-care legislation would reduce the number of uninsured. Over the past few decades, the Hispanic population has exploded. Latin America provided half of all the immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1965 (when LBJ dramatically liberalized the immigration system) and 2008; Mex­ico alone provided 29 percent. While stronger border enforcement and the economic downturn have contributed to a steep drop in Mexican immigration since the mid-2000s, a July 2009 Pew study concluded that there had not been an uptick in migration back to Mexico.

The Census Bureau calculates that Hispanics made up almost one-sixth of the U.S. population in 2008. As Pew observes, they had a much bigger population share in certain states, such as New Mexico (45.1 percent), California (36.6 percent), Texas (36.2 percent), and Arizona (30.2 percent). Twenty-five percent of all Amer­i­can children under age five were His­panic, as were 22 percent of all children under 18. The median age of Hispanics (27.7) was more than nine years lower than the median age of the entire population (36.8). Hispanic females have a substantially higher fertility rate than black, white, and Asian women. The Census Bureau has projected that approximately one out of every four U.S. residents will be Hispanic by mid-century.

#page#That’s why Hispanic social mobility is so critically important to America’s future. Unfortunately, says Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor, the children of Mexican immigrants appear to be “assimilating down” into an underclass culture. So much about contemporary Mexican immigration is unprecedented, he adds: America has never absorbed such a massive and continuous flow of migrants from one country for such an extended period; and no U.S. immigrant group has ever been so heavily undocumented. Vigdor thinks the current lull in Mexican immigration will be temporary.

In his new book, From Immigrants to Americans, Vigdor shows that, while Mex­ican immigrants gradually improve their economic standing over time, they have lower rates of naturalization, weaker English capabilities, and much smaller incomes than other immigrant groups. Indeed, says Vigdor, unlike their predecessors in the late 1800s and early 1900s, today’s U.S. immigrants arrive with wildly varying skills. In an era when the college wage premium has skyrocketed and the number of well-paying low-skilled jobs has rapidly declined, those immigrants at the upper end of the skill distri­bution (such as Chinese and Indians) enjoy a huge structural advantage over those at the bottom (such as Mexicans and Central Americans).

Vigdor argues that Mexicans’ sluggish economic performance can be explained largely by their education deficit. In the Census Bureau’s 2007 American Com­munity Survey, he notes, fewer than 5 percent of Mexicans reported having a college degree. According to an October 2009 Pew study, nearly one-third of Hispanics aged 25 to 29 do not have a high-school diploma, compared with just 11 percent of all 25- to 29-year-olds. Only 12 percent of Hispanics in that same demographic have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 31 percent of the general population.

In their 2009 book, The Latino Edu­cation Crisis, professors Patricia Gándara of UCLA and Frances Contreras of the University of Washington observe that the percentage of Hispanics with college degrees has been stagnant since the 1980s. Certain Hispanic immigrant groups seem to hit a “ceiling” of educational attainment “after the third generation,” if not sooner. “Never before have we been faced with a population group on the verge of becoming the majority in significant portions of the country that is also the lowest performing academically,” write Gándara and Contreras. “And never before has the economic structure been less forgiving to the undereducated.”

Hispanics are plagued by an attainment gap, and also by an achievement gap. The latter can be seen in the National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading test results. In 2005, accord­ing to a National Education Association report, just 68 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and 52 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders demonstrated “basic” proficiency in math; only 46 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and 56 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders reached that performance level in reading. (For non-Hispanic whites, the percentages were 90, 80, 76, and 82, respectively.)

Educational progress among Hispanics has been hampered by a variety of social and cultural factors. For example, an increasingly large proportion of Hispanic children are being born out of wedlock. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the nonmarital-birth ratio among Hispanics grew from 23.6 percent in 1980 to 51.3 percent in 2007. A May 2009 Pew paper estimated that the share of Hispanic children living in married-couple families is 69 percent among children of the first generation but only 52 percent among those of the third generation and beyond.

In terms of cognitive development, many Hispanics are falling behind middle-class whites at a very early age, according to a new study from the University of California, Berkeley. Sociologist Bruce Fuller and several other researchers determined that, while Hispanic newborns are known for their “robust birth weight and low mortality rates,” their cognitive growth between 9 months and 24 months trails that of middle-class white children. The researchers attributed this to the low levels of education among Hispanic mothers, their insufficient pre-literacy activities, and the higher child-to-adult ratios in His­panic households. Simply put: Hispanic toddlers are, on balance, growing up in family environments that are less conducive to learning the skills needed to succeed in school.

Much of the political oxygen in recent immigration squabbles has been consumed by border security and amnesty. Those are hardly trivial issues, but a comprehensive discussion would focus intensely on Hispanic social mobility. Vigdor says there is ample reason to be worried about “the breakdown of the Great American Assimilation Machine.” As Gándara and Contreras put it, “If the high dropout rates and low educational achievement of Latino youth are not turned around, we will have created a permanent underclass without hope of integrating into the mainstream or realizing their potential to contribute to American society.”

In This Issue

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Assimilating Down

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