December 5, 2003

Channeling Latino Youth Into the Low-Wage Trap: Race and Class Polarization in California

The following article, Julio Cammarota is excerpted from the original, which was published in Youth and work in the Post-Industrial City of North America and Europe.

by Julio Juan Cammarota

Educational Attainment and Labor Market Status

The correlation between educational attainment and labor-market status may shed light on why young Latinos might remain in the low end of the bifurcated job market. Most indicators for labor outcomes suggest that labor market position improves with higher levels of educational attainment. Indeed, education levels influence participation rates and labor force status, but the critical economic indicator of income correlates with years of schooling.

For the general U.S. population, a high school graduate earned only 57 cents for every dollar a college graduate made in 1990, a decline from 64 cents in 1972 (Topolnicki 1993, 10). Earning for Latinos rise with level of education as well. For example, the Latino income for those above 25 years of age and without a high school diploma averaged about $15,832 a year in 1999 (Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 2000). With a diploma, income jumps to $20,978 a year. The greatest disparity is between high school and college graduates: Latinos with a bachelor’s degree earned $15,000 more per year (average of $35,014) than Latinos who had only a high school degree.

The wage disparity between those with college degrees and those with only a high school diploma is attributed to better paying, high-skill jobs requiring a college education. Employment projections to 2006, estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, show that high-skills occupations in computer and technological related fields will witness growth rates above 100%, but these new jobs will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Educational attainment may reliably indicate which side of the bi-polar job market a worker will end up on.

The generally poor educational picture for Latinos suggests that they would most likely attain jobs in the low-skill employment sector. Among the various racial groups in the United States, Latinos have some of the lowest educational attainment rates, implying that they would fail to meet the basic credential requirements for entrance into higher paying job markets.

High school graduation rates for the U.S. population show that Latinos lag behind most racial groups. Latinos figures for college achievement are equally discouraging. Because college facilitates access to the high-paying side of the polarized job market, many Latinos must contend with poor labor market status resulting from low achievement levels in higher education. Without a college degree in the new service economy, job opportunities for young Latinos become limited to a single alternative: the expanding low-wage service sector.

Racial Inequality in California Schools

California schools unfortunately do not offer a way out of the low-wage trap for Latino youth. In some ways, the Californian education system contributes to channeling them into low-wage services because it fails to lead them to a college education. Although Latinos represent the majority in California’s K-12 public schools, they are some of the least likely to attend college.

A Latino child enters an education system with profound racial inequalities, a system that is more effective at ensuring his or her failure than success. However, the system is extremely adept at meeting the needs and interests of white students and preparing them for college. With the polarization of the service workforce and college requirement for entrance into high paying jobs, schools in California, by default, help to perpetuate racial inequalities by continuously failing Latino students while promoting the academic success of white students.

Harvard education scholar Gary Orfield (1996) contends that the main educational barrier for Latino students in California is that they are more likely to attend segregated schools than any other racial group. Segregated schools often exhibit many negative characteristics (i.e. tracking, unqualified teachers, lack of resources, culturally irrelevant curriculum, etc.) that education researchers have identified as the reasons for low achievement among Latino students (Olsen 1997; Orfield and Eaton 1996; Perez and Salazar 1993; Trueba 1999; Valencia 1991). Perez and Salazar (1993, 220) state that segregated schools for Latinos tend to lack resources to provide students with a competitive education; that the curriculum in predominantly minority schools moves away from advanced-level work and toward low-level work; and that teachers in such schools have less education and experience than their colleagues in predominately white schools.

A highly segregated school system in California suggest that Latino and white students move through divergent and unequal academic trajectories.

The Academic Performance Index (API), which the California Department of Education produces to measure the performance of schools and students within the state, verifies the divergence and inequality between Latino and white students. Presenting an almost inverse relationship, Latinos represent 75% of the students enrolled in the lowest performing schools in the state, whereas white students make up 74% of the students enrolled in the highest performing schools (California Budget Project 2001). The key significance of this performance differential is that white students are far more likely to receive a better education than Latino students.

Severe inequalities in the educational system cut against the grain of the standard belief in the possibilities and expectations of schooling. Many Americans wholeheartedly accepted the modern discourse of how academic achievement theoretically can overcome barriers imposed by social inequality. Out of necessity, immigrant families often accept the key premise within this discourse, using it to rationalize immigration to the United States.

Parents expect education to result in better opportunities for their children and serve as a way to avoid their own arduous path, thus breaking from a life of toil and paltry earnings. Unfortunately, the school system, if anything, is less about making Latino youth college bound and more about placing them in lower tracks, including those that eventually lead to low-wage services. Without a college degree, a young Latino in California will experience far greater challenges to earning high wages than anywhere else in the nation.


This paper raises some important concerns about recent economic developments and the future of Latino youth in California. For many young Latinos, coming of age in California during the 1990s included the unfortunate experience of social marginalization through processes of globalization.

Throughout the decade, racial politics reared its ugly head in the form of anti-immigrant (Proposition 187), anti-affirmative action (Proposition 209), and anti-bilingual education (Proposition 227) state ballot initiatives. These propositions targeted the state’s Latino population as a way to reinforce a subordinate relationship to the dominant economic interests. The 90s political onslaught to contain the ‘brown tide’ suggested to many Latinos that dominant forces would attempt to control their future by ensuring that the growing size of the Latino population within the state would not translate into increased social and economic power.

Therefore, the impending future is clear: young Latinos would have to suffer the eventual fate of living under an ‘apartheid-like’ political economy. This political economic system intends to segregate and cordon them off as a subservient class denied access to the better resources and opportunities and relegated to the status of cheap labor to satisfy the economic interests of those in power.

Stephen Steinberg (1991, 744), author of The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America states that “policies of apartheid” appeared more than fifty years ago in housing and economic development programs implemented throughout U.S. cities. Now apartheid moves directly and pervasively within the political economy through the “missed opportunity to upgrade the skills of marginal workers and lower racist barriers throughout the workplace.” With apartheid looming on the horizon, many Latinos, young and old, must find the political resources and strategies to push paste the occupational and educational impediments and challenge their subordination within this new millennium.

Julio Cammarota’s e-mail address is:

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