Hispanic Economic Progress: Surging Faster But Still Behind

In October, the unemployment rate for Hispanics hit a record low and has begun to catch up to other racial and ethnic groups. But despite the progress, significant gaps between them remain.

[Photo: courtesy of Wes Hicks]

When President Trump visited Florida last month, he highlighted one achievement in particular: the economic progress made by Hispanics, a group that has strongly opposed Trump because of his immigration policies. The unemployment rate for Hispanics had hit 4.8 percent in October, a record low, and has remained at about that level ever since.

“For Hispanics, we have the lowest ever recorded,” Trump told small business leaders at a roundtable in Hialeah.

What the president didn’t say is that economic progress among Hispanics began to occur even before his administration took office. And, more so than for other racial groups, Hispanics are benefitting not just from the strong economy but from other, long-run changes. American Hispanics, as a group, are becoming more educated, more likely to speak English, and more integrated into American society and the economy.

As a result, Hispanics have begun to catch up to other racial and ethnic groups in earnings — although significant gaps remain. In 2016, the median household income for Hispanic families was around $47,000, nearly $17,000 less than the typical white family, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Back in 2013, median income for Hispanics was just $40,000, and the gap was larger at approximately $18,000. Meanwhile the poverty rate for Hispanics dropped to 19.4 percent in 2016 from 24.7 percent back in 2013.

When Victor Trejo’s parents moved to the U.S. from Mexico in the late 1980’s, they didn’t speak English. His father worked a full-time job while his mother worked two part-time jobs, both in order to provide Victor a promising future.

For Trejo, however, the situation is very different. He was born in the United States and belongs to a crowd of second-generation Latinos. His parents raised Victor to speak both English and Spanish. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of South Florida, Victor has worked for several large advertising companies and is now an account manager for Triad Retail Media, a digital advertising agency in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“I have my own place in South Tampa and don’t need to rely on anyone,” Trejo said. “The job I have now has enable me to travel. I have been to Denver, Chicago, even travelled to Mexico.”

Florida has the third largest percentage of Hispanic residents in the country, after California and Texas. And along with six other states in the U.S., Florida holds one of the lowest unemployment rates for Hispanics at 4.2 percent.

Hispanic unemployment has been declining for several years for the same reason the unemployment rate nationwide has been: the economy is still recovering from the recession. In April, the national unemployment rate hit 3.9 percent, the lowest since 2000.

For Hispanics, however the progress isn’t just about the improving U.S. economy. The Hispanics entering the labor markets today are more likely to be born in the U.S. and generally have higher levels of education as well as greater proficiency with the English language. More than half of U.S.-born Hispanic adults 25 years or older have completed at least some college, compared to approximately 25 percent of immigrants. And about 89 percent of Hispanics born in the U.S. speak only English, or speak English at home, compared to Hispanic immigrants with only 34 percent.

“The educational level of Hispanics is a contributing factor to their economic well-being and they are improving on a variety of educational measures,” said Jens Manuel Krogstad, who studies Hispanic demographics for the Pew Research Center. “If current trends continue, we’ll see education and household income increase in the coming years.”

This improvement reaches Hispanic men and women, as well as those born in the U.S. and outside. All four groups have reached unemployment rates below pre-recession levels; U.S.-born Hispanics have made the most progress, with their unemployment rate dropping to 5.6 percent in 2017, compared with 6.2 in 2006.

Despite the progress, there still remains an economic gap. Hispanic unemployment is still consistently about one third higher than that of whites, which remains at 3.6 percent steadily since March. Though Hispanic unemployment has fallen, the economy’s tight labor market hasn’t quite been able to completely eliminate inequality in job opportunities and salaries.

Abdon Acosta received his bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of South Florida in May of last year. Unlike Trejo, he has struggled to find a job within his preferred area of study and was recently unemployed for two and a half months. Abdon’s situation forced him to find employment elsewhere outside of his field where the pay isn’t as much as he expected to be making after graduation. He is now working as a custodian and had to take on a second job to make ends meet, although he remains optimistic that he will find a job in his field.

“It’s been difficult to find work in my field,” Acosta said.

Several studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences indicate only a slight decline in hiring discrimination has occurred over the past 25 years, persisting even in strong economic times. On average, whites still receive 24 percent more callbacks than Hispanics when they apply for jobs.

“For someone who is not of white descent, it is so much more uncertain to find work after college,” said Janelle Jones, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute who studies racial demographics within the economy. She said black and Hispanic workers who obtain their four-year degrees are still likely to be surpassed by their white peers of equivalent status.

“When the unemployment rate for whites is very low and employers have nowhere else to look, then they start extending their hiring networks to black and brown workers,” said Jones.

Acosta remains optimistic that he will find a better job. “It’s been coming around,” he said. “I’m not quite there yet, I’ve been trying to get on LinkedIn more and going to networking events.”

He isn’t the only one keeping his head up.

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center also indicates Hispanics in the U.S. have become considerably more upbeat about their personal finances and financial future since the great recession. Four-in-ten Hispanics say their personal finances are in “excellent” or “good” shape.

This story was written originally for a Business Reporting: Covering the Economy class at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY during the 2018 Spring Semester. It was originally published in the school’s business blog The Invisible Hand.

Multimedia Journalist/Storyteller

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store