November 1, 2002

Worrisome Income, Poverty Data for Latinos Signal Need for Measures to Spark Economic Opportunity

Washington DC — New information about income and poverty in America released by the U.S. Census Bureau sends clear signals that policy-makers must take immediate steps to strengthen measures that invest in workers and improve the economic well-being of families. The data reveal that, between 2000 and 2001, income fell and poverty remained high for Latinos.

After four consecutive years of increases for Latinos, real median household income decreased by 1.6% from $34,094 in 2000 to $33,565 in 2001, not a statistically significant change. Data also show that the poverty rate for Latinos remained relatively stable, but high. In both 2001 and 2000, one in five Latinos was poor (21.4% and 21.5%, respectively). The poverty rate for Hispanic children decreased from 28.4% in 2000 to 28.0% in 2001. However, the number of poor children actually increased during this period - nearly 3.6 million Latino children were poor in 2001. More than one-third of Latinos are under 18 years old, and these children represent America’s future workers and taxpayers. Economic benchmarks for Whites and Blacks also reflect negative changes, suggesting that American households are beginning to realize the impact of the nation’s economic recession.

For Latino families, declining incomes and rising poverty are especially troubling because Latino men are the group of American workers most likely to be working or looking for work. Despite a consistently high level of participation in the workforce, 11.2% of all Latino workers live in poverty. In fact, 6.5% of Hispanics who work full-time, year-round were still poor in 2001, compared with 4.4% and 1.7% of similar Black and White workers, respectively. Data suggest that poverty persists for Latino workers because parents who work at minimum wage jobs do not earn enough to lift their families out of poverty. A parent who works full-time, year-round at the minimum wage earns roughly $4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have yet to respond to these worrisome economic trends that are the primary concerns of America’s families. A survey of the Hispanic electorate in May found that two in five Latinos rated jobs and the economy as their first or second choice as the most important public policy issue facing the nation. Unfortunately, our elected officials have responded to these issues with rhetoric and relatively little action.

The Senate is stalled in its consideration of the welfare reform bill, while the House has passed an unworkable bill that would force parents into jobs that leave their families in poverty. Opponents of the Senate’s bill have attacked the emphasis it places on education and other programs that would give parents needed skills to be eligible for jobs with higher wages and benefits. They have also opposed the compassion shown to immigrants in the Senate bill, even though the number of poor noncitizens increased in 2001 to over four million, from 3.8 million in 2000. Furthermore, numerous lawmakers have advanced the flawed argument that marriage solves poverty, ignoring that 17.2% of Hispanics in married-couple families live in poverty compared with 4.1% of Whites and 9.2% of Blacks in similar families.

The nation as a whole is facing economic insecurity, and policy-makers have the responsibility to promote measures that will fuel growth and prosperity.

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