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Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlights Growing Latino Population and Economic Impact

This year's commemoration recognizes the community's importance to the country’s future, as the source of more than three-quarters of new workers.

A Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at Alabama's Russellville High School. Alabama's Hispanic population grew 200 percent between 2000 and 2020.
(Rebecca Griesbach/TNS)
Hispanic Heritage Month brings an opportunity for an honest reckoning of where we might find new energy to build the country’s future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 78 percent of the new workers entering America’s workforce between 2020 and 2030 will be Hispanic.

Analysis by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Institute (LPPI) found that between 2000 and 2020, the Hispanic population increased at a greater rate than the entire state population in every state in America. In many cases, it is an order of magnitude larger (see map).

In West Virginia, the only state with an overall population decrease (by less than nine-tenths of 1 percent), the Hispanic population increased 164 percent. As might be expected, the largest growth in numbers since 2010 has been in California, Texas and Florida.

Another UCLA effort, the Latino GDP Project, has been publishing data about the economic contributions of Latino Americans annually since 2019. “If Latinos living in the United States were an independent country, the U.S. Latino GDP would be the fifth largest GDP in the world,” say the authors of the 2023 report. Moreover, they say, GDP from this demographic grew at a rate of 7.1 percent in 2021, 2 percentage points faster than non-Latino GDP.

These statistics echo the theme of Hispanic Heritage Month 2023 — “Latinos: Driving Prosperity, Power, and Progress in America.” There’s room for improving the lives of individual Hispanic families, however.

A September report from the U.S. Census Bureau announced that real median income declined in 2022. While this had not been the case for Hispanic households, their median income was more than $40,000 less than Asian households and almost $20,000 less than “non-Hispanic White” households.

In 1980, the Hispanic population in the U.S. was just over half the size of the Black population. It’s projected to reach over 111 million by 2060, a 93 percent increase over 2016.

Behind these numbers is what LPPI describes as a “mosaic” of Americans from greatly varied backgrounds. The Census is adapting to do a better job of capturing their identities, as the passage of time, intermarriage and shifting perspectives in the social sciences redefine categories of identity.

That Word

"You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means." That is a favorite line among fans of the 1987 film The Princess Bride. In the present context, there are two misunderstood and often misused words: Hispanic and race.

The demographics of the Hispanic community are in considerable flux. So is the meaning of the word itself.

The “race” categories used in the census are White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Respondents are categorized as “Hispanic” if they identify a Spanish-speaking country as their country of origin.

The “white, non-Hispanic” category might seem to mean that, in general, Latinos list their race as “white.” But in the 2021 American Community Survey, only 10 percent said this. More than one in four said “two or more races,” and more than one in five said “some other race.”

These varied responses echo evolving science regarding race and identity. Major advances in the study of human genetics in this century have led researchers to conclude that there is not enough difference between the genetic material of the various groups characterized as “races” to justify the use of the term.

Paula Braveman is the founding director of the Center for Health Equity at the University of California, San Francisco. She has led national and international research efforts to understand racial and ethnic health disparities and would like to see the term “race” phased out, replaced by “ethnicity.”

The assignment of racial identity to suggest some groups are “biologically” different — and inferior or superior on this basis — has been used to justify “both slavery and genocide,” Braveman writes. It’s the most foundational element of all forms of racism.

Genetics aside, Braveman recognizes the reality of racist attitudes and behavior and the need to address them. Moving away from racial categories, as has been done in Europe, has the potential to reduce the perception of “otherness” at the root of racist behavior.

More than half of U.S. Latinos report they have experienced some form of racial discrimination. This is even more common among Hispanics with darker skin (64 percent), a striking example of negative consequences from perceived “racial” differences.

Representation and Change

At present, there are 448 Hispanics serving in legislatures in 38 states and Puerto Rico. (If Hispanic Americans were represented in these bodies in proportion to their share of the population, the number would be more than 1,400.)

Their approach to legislation can vary according to the politics in their state, but they share legislative goals, says Kenneth Romero, executive director of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL).

Reproductive and LGBTQ rights are priorities, though with different objectives than the restrictive legislation that has captured public attention. AI is a concern, he says, “from a thousand perspectives.” Caucus members are working to take advantage of the green transition and job creation opportunities in the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure bill.

A steady increase in traffic at the U.S.-Mexico border is causing pressure to build around immigration. Policies that can help immigrants find a place in communities make sense at a time when employers need workers, Romero says, including skilled professionals such as nurses. Hispanic legislators in New York are hoping to enact funding to provide legal assistance and access to health services for asylum seekers.

Housing affordability is a particular challenge, Romero says. The Hispanic community tends to concentrate in urban areas, where high cost of living combines with wage gaps. New York City has moved to restrict short-term Airbnb-type rentals by hosts who don’t live in spaces they are renting, a strategy that could be used elsewhere.

Connecticut state Rep. Juan Candelaria says that no-cause eviction is becoming a problem in his state. Investors are buying up apartment buildings and forcing out lower-income tenants in favor of those who can pay more. He’s reintroduced legislation to cap rents and change eviction rules after a failed attempt last year.

The state has enacted a grant program to help low-income residents receive training for green jobs. The time limit for bilingual support in public schools has been extended from three years to six years. In recent years, the Legislature ended a requirement for police to report undocumented individuals to immigration officials, unless the person detained has a criminal record.

Beginning in September, every child born in Connecticut will receive a $3,200 “baby bond” to be kept in a trust managed by the state treasurer. It is a benefit that extends to children of undocumented persons, Candelaria says.

The bond can be redeemed when the child turns 18 (or up to age 30). Latinos don’t come with generational wealth, he says, and this is a way to help all young people in the state have money for tuition or a home purchase.

Some in the Latino community aren’t convinced the government has their best interests at heart. Candelaria wants to see more of them at the polls on election day. “That’s one of the biggest issues we face as a community,” he says.

“There could be a thousand of us in the community, but if only a hundred of us are voting, what's going to be the impact? Very minimal.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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