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Hispanic economists and policy analysts offer ideas on how to strengthen financial outlook of Latinos

LatinaLista — Today, Hispanic university economists, financial executives and policy analysts gathered at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas to discuss “The Hispanic Economic Experience.”

Coming from across the nation and throughout Texas, the economists met to deliver their latest research findings regarding the financial state of Latinos in the United States. Mark Lopez, associate director of the Washington, DC-based Pew Hispanic Center, kicked off the daylong event by reviewing the findings of the 2010 US Census that tracked the phenomenal growth in the Latino population over the last ten years.

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With Latinos standing at 50.5 million strong, Lopez believes that the real story about Hispanic population growth has everything to do with Hispanic youth. He believes it’s not until the younger generation comes of age that the real story of the Latino population will emerge.

Yet, Lopez and all of the economists conceded that any true picture of today’s Latino population has to include the undocumented segment. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the number of undocumented immigrants to be around 11.2 million. Regardless of citizenship status though, Latinos, overall, wield one trillion dollars in purchasing power.

However, though Latinos do carry an impressive wallet, one economist, Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, found that Latinos have made no progress in escaping poverty, especially among Hispanic immigrants. She admits that over time the poverty rate drops with native born Hispanics but a poverty gap persists exasperated by not speaking English, not having a steady job, age and lack of education.

Orrenius cautioned the audience that unless several troubling trends are addressed — the rise in non-marital births and a growing elderly population with no financial cushion — the Latino poverty rate could worsen.

While most of the news delivered by the economists served to portray a demographic in crisis, it was made clear that it’s the undocumented immigrant population that is unduly suffering because of Congress’ inaction on immigration reform.

Brian Cadena, assistant professor of the University of Colorado-Boulder, in his analysis of the connection between Mexican migration and the housing bust, said that 30 percent of the construction industry is comprised of Mexican-born workers.

As a result of losing construction jobs, rather than return to Mexico to wait out the economic downturn, migrants are choosing to move from state to state where there are jobs, because the border enforcement is so strict that they can’t be sure they’ll be able to return.

Cadena says that this mobility by migrant construction workers actually helps diffuse the negative labor market in those states hardest hit by construction losses, unlike native-born workers who stay put waiting for the next job.

Overall, the profile of undocumented immigrants, as presented by the economists, shows a resourceful group that when pressured by changes in state law due to anti-immigrant legislation create their own opportunities.

Mary Lopez, assistant professor at Occidental College, reported that more Latinos create their own businesses. But there exists a big unknown with the data of entrepreneurial Latinos.

While the US Census and Pew Hispanic Center have documented the rise in Hispanic-owned businesses, Prof. Lopez points out that there is no data to show how successful these businesses really are and that there is a need to further study the success rates of Hispanic business owners.

Fortunately, there is one area that has generated extensive study — Latino graduation rates. The unfortunate part is that study after study reveals just how far behind Latinos remain compared to whites and blacks.

In a luncheon address about Texas’ Latino graduation rates by Richard Fisher, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Fisher placed the blame of “abysmal” educational achievement squarely on the shoulders of Latino families.

“It is time for our great Latino population to have the courage to face the facts: They must do a better job as families and within their communities to dedicate themselves to educational achievement,” Fisher said. “And it is time for all Texans, Hispanics and non-Hispanics, to act to create the conditions that will safeguard and nourish the prosperity of all our children and that of our children’s children.”

The only problem is there needs to be a plan in place for Latino families and educators to follow that can lead to the kind of outcomes that not only improve the job prospects for Latinos but will strengthen the economy because of more Latinos entering the workforce with higher job skills.

The last speaker of the day, Ann Baddur, senior policy analyst with Texas Appleseed, an organization that promotes access to fairly priced financial services for low-income immigrant communities, believes she has the answer on how to strengthen one part of the puzzle that keeps Latinos financially unstable.

Baddur shared that after the market meltdowns, Texas exploded with payday services and auto title loans, businesses that charge their customers rates in excess of 500 percent APR. These businesses heavily market to Latino and Spanish-speaking communities.

Baddur noted that she sees two strategies to help the Latino community attain financial stability and gain their rightful place in the nation’s economy: A concerted strategy to promote financial education and a regulatory environment that squeezes out the bad players and promotes positive, wealth building market innovation.

“We must promote financial education,” Baddur said. “In the schools, in the community, at the workplace, in whatever venue we can reach people and take advantage of teachable moments.”

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