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Summer 2006 Vol. 6 No. 2

Table of Contents

Hispanics in America

©Trinette Reed/Corbis

Population Gains Bring Opportunities
and Challenges

Hispanics are the nation's largest ethnic group -- and its fastest-growing. They represent 14 percent of the U.S. population, and if current trends continue, that number will grow to nearly 25 percent within two decades. This rapid increase, anticipated across many parts of the United States, will be one of the most important demographic stories of the early 21st century. How that story will play out is uncertain.

A s a group, Hispanics are far from monolithic. They vary in national origin, immigrant and legal status, skin color, social and economic background, language use, and political views. Hispanics face the many challenges often confronted by immigrants in a new homeland. But they also face some conditions that other waves of immigrants did not, such as a global marketplace that increasingly relies on well-educated employees. Additionally, U.S. Hispanics as a group are young. In 2000 their median age was 27, compared with 39 for non-Hispanic whites. By 2030, the children of today's Spanish-speaking immigrants will number about 26 million -- and most will be part of the U.S. work force.

Education and training are the linchpins that will give the nation's Hispanic workers and their children important tools to contribute to and share in U.S. prosperity, says a recent National Research Council report that examines the Hispanic experience in the United States. Targeted investments in these areas would benefit not only Hispanics, but also the country as a whole by enhancing U.S. productivity as baby boomers shift into retirement.

Many Hispanics are now on the bottom rungs of the U.S. economic ladder in low-paying service jobs. This is especially true for recent immigrants, most of whom arrive with little formal education. Inadequate English language skills and schooling frequently limit their access to better jobs and impede the upward mobility of their children. English proficiency is key for success in the job market, higher learning, and everyday activities such as navigating health care systems and participating in civic life, the report says.

©Medio ImagesFailure to complete high school remains a major problem for many Hispanics, leaving them ill-equipped to compete for high-paying jobs in an economy driven by technology and information, says the report, which covers economic, health, education, and other aspects of Hispanics' lives. Although many immigrant students are academically behind when they arrive in this country, both foreign-born Hispanics and Hispanics born in the United States are less likely to be high school graduates than non-Hispanics. Improving the educational attainment of Hispanics would raise their standard of living. And from a purely economic standpoint, unless tomorrow's Hispanic workers have job skills equivalent to those of retirees, their earnings will not be enough to replenish dwindling Social Security coffers.

"Although their experiences in some ways mirror those of previous immigrant groups, the size of the Hispanic population, its varied immigration experiences, the global economy, and an aging majority population have created unique challenges and opportunities for the nation," said Marta Tienda, chair of the panel that wrote the report and a professor of demographic studies, sociology, and public affairs at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

Much is known about these issues. What is needed, the report says, is the will to use this knowledge, integrating research findings into public policy.   -- Vanee Vines

Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies: Hispanics and the American Future. Panel on Hispanics in the United States, Committee on Population, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2006, 176 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09667-7, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $34.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The panel was chaired by Marta Tienda, Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies and professor of sociology and public affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. The study was sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Cancer Institute, Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, National Institute of Mental Health, and National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health; the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; National Center for Health Statistics; U.S. Census Bureau; Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; California HealthCare Foundation; and the California Endowment.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences