The tax burden to support our aging population will fall increasingly on Latinos. More than half the births last year were to non-white parents, and Hispanics make up the youngest significant demographic in the country, with the median age of Hispanics hovering around 28 years. Alternatively, more than 80 percent of the senior citizens in this country are non-Hispanic whites, and the large baby boomer generation will be with us until the 2040’s. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that Social Security and Medicare take up a staggering share of our national budget, with 22 percent going to Social Security and about 14 percent going to Medicare. Combined, these programs make up almost twice our profoundly bloated military budget.
More than ever, a college degree is a prerequisite for participation in the workforce – the folks who will be shoring up our tax base. These numbers profoundly underscore the fact that an educated Latino workforce is a must for everyone – not just Hispanic families. Yet a recent Pew Research Report on the educational attainment of Latinos illustrates we still have a long way to go to achieve that task. While some states are seeing an increase in the number of Latinos with a college degree, what is most distressing is that among the states with the largest share of Hispanics, only Florida and New York have educational attainments above the Hispanic national average.
In California, which has almost 28 percent of the nation’s Latinos, only one-in-ten (10.7 percent) of Hispanic adults have a college degree. Texas has the second-largest Latino population – but the number of Latino adults with college degrees is just 12.0%. In New York, the fourth biggest Latino state by population, 15.9 percent of Latino adults have a bachelor’s degree. And in Illinois, the Hispanics’ college degree-attainment rate is 12.2 percent.
With California, Illinois, and Texas lagging behind, there should be growing concern over the ability of the next generation to pay for the increasing tax burden they will shoulder because of the baby boomer population.
This raises questions and creates generational friction over the spending priorities for government. One way of ensuring Latinos are better educated and thus better equipped for a changing workforce is by examining the relationship between Latinos in some of our larger states and immigration status.
In the low-achieving states where Latinos make up a high proportion of the foreign born population, Mexican foreign-born migrants are the majority of that population. For instance, in California, where 25 percent of the population is foreign born, the plurality of these are from Mexico. This is a similar dynamic in Illinois and Texas. We might assume, then, that this is a generational problem that will take care of itself, as the next generation is more likely to go to college. Yes and no. The most pressing issue for the Mexican population is social and economic integration of the undocumented. Without some formal integration process, such as the Dream Act or comprehensive immigration reform, Latinos in these low-achieving states will continue to be at a disadvantage.
It is easy to claim that our spending priorities are a function of intergenerational stinginess, perhaps exacerbated by ethnic or racial issues. Indeed, states like Arizona, where the cultural divide is largest between the brown and the gray, voters have overwhelmingly approved of anti-immigrant legislation, such as SB1070.
Undocumented immigrants impact more than just the individual, because they are often living with family members with formal status. This is a major burden for a family who cannot educate or fully benefit from the work of those without status, further damaging the prospects of an education for all within the family.
The question is, will our aging population and the nation’s legislators see how important Latino success is to their own interests, or are they willing to cut off their nose to spite their face? While the obstacles are many for Mexican immigrants, who are the poorest among the foreign-born, needlessly adding to that burden makes little sense for all involved. Unfortunately, politics isn’t always rational.
Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.