Hispanics and mobility in America

September 16, 2016 Cristina Lopez-Gottardi Chao, Volume 6 co-editor
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Deep concern regarding the viability of the American Dream has arisen as a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, and in many ways explains the unexpected rise of Donald Trump and former democratic hopeful, Bernie Sanders. However, lost in all the negative campaign rhetoric on this issue, is a bit of positive news. Hispanics—poised to represent roughly 27 million eligible voters this November—are optimistic about their future and the prospects of economic and social mobility in America.

According to the Pew Research Center, 7 in 10 foreign-born Hispanics say their standard of living is better than their parents. When Hispanics look to the next generation, they are significantly more optimistic than the general American public with 72 percent saying they expect their children’s lives to be better than their own. These are impressive numbers.

But Hispanics also face some common challenges. In a recent essay written for the Miller Center’s First Year 2017 Project, Melody Barnes, Domestic Policy Advisor in the Obama Administration, notes how “today, exclusion from opportunity knows no racial or ethnic bounds.”

In this election cycle, Hispanics are concerned about access to quality education and health care, the state of the U.S. economy, their own job prospects, and immigration policy. While both political parties currently appear to be occupied by other matters, it seems inevitable that the Democrats’ electoral advantage over Hispanics will remain firm this November. In 2012, President Obama won an impressive 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, with Romney securing just 27 percent of Latinos nationwide. Hillary Clinton is likely to garner a similar share this election cycle—and may even win a higher percentage given Latino voter activism that has resulted from several of Trump’s incendiary comments on immigration, Mexicans and his intent to build a really “big” wall.

Nevertheless, it remains difficult to understand how the Republican National Committee’s widely circulated 2013 “Growth and Opportunity Report” has had seemingly so little impact on the party. The report called for targeted outreach to Hispanics and other minority groups, backing of comprehensive immigration reform, and the cultivation of minority candidates. The once-possible candidacies of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio seemed in the abstract at least to address some of these recommendations—although they may not have been enough to significantly expand Latino support for the GOP.

Going forward, whoever occupies the White House come January 2017 would be wise to capitalize on Hispanic optimism regarding the viability of the American Dream, and education policy may be the best place to start. In a recent essay, Bob Pianta, Dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Education, cites public education as “one of America’s drivers of social and economic mobility, an investment in opportunity for all citizens.” This is a sentiment shared by the majority of Hispanics, with 83 percent saying education is a major factor in their 2016 vote.

Although Hispanic high school dropout rates have declined significantly over the years, Hispanics still lag behind in the completion of four-year college degrees. Recent data reveals that only 15 percent of Latinos finish four-year degrees, as compared to 22 percent of blacks, 41 percent of whites, and 63 percent of Asian Americans.

At the K-12 level, Hispanics are also outperformed on some aspects of school readiness. In particular, Hispanic students entering Kindergarten tend to be significantly behind their white peers in reading proficiency, a problem that seems to persist even through the 8th grade and beyond and with important ramifications. Early intervention and tailored resources are key to addressing this problem.

With more than 55 million Hispanics in the United States, representing roughly 17 percent of the U.S. population, and a purchasing power that is also on the rise (with growth of about 155 percent since 2000), our next president should focus on proactive measures aimed at addressing these specific challenges. Doing so would be good not only for Hispanic Americans, but for the president’s party, and all of our collective futures.

Cristina Lopez-Gottardi Chao is an assistant professor and research director for Public and Policy Programs at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.