The face of America is changing more rapidly and more dramatically than most observers had ever predicted. A preliminary analysis of the 2000 census revealed a more rapid growth among our nation’s minority population than was earlier predicted and a dramatic slow-down in growth among the majority population. In fact, the United States is now identified by the United Nations as one of eight “low-fertility countries” (along with France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom). U.S. population growth has been so slow that to simply maintain a stable working-age population will require 1,310 immigrants per million residents each year until the year 2050.
While the nation’s overall population growth has slowed, great shifts within subgroup populations have significantly altered our nation’s age-distribution and language representation, as well as a host of other socio-demographic characteristics. Perhaps the most dramatic change in recent years is the growth in the Latino population in the United States, which increased by 58 percent in the last decade. Latinos became America’s largest minority at 13.8 percent of the population in the year 2003, 17 years sooner than had been predicted based on the previous census.
The statistics are compelling:
- Each year until 2050, the Latino population is projected to add more people to the United States than the non-Latino white population.
- More than 40 percent of the United States foreign-born population is Latino.
- Sixty-eight percent of the Latinos in the United States today report being either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants.
- One in 8 Americans over the age of 5 speaks a language other than English at home; 1 in 10 speaks Spanish.
- The number of Latino voters has increased by 20 percent between the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections.
- The number of Latino-owned businesses in the United States is growing at a rate nearly three times that of non-Latino businesses.
The population characteristics of this community’s demographic differ dramatically from those of the majority population on several important dimensions. These differences will inform not only the needs of a community, but also the means to best serve those needs. An analysis of demographic data can help organizations like EDC identify new directions and priorities that maintain the relevancy of our work to those we serve.
Unfortunately, the data available through many reports and the media are based on data aggregation techniques and analyses that can lead to over-simplifying the tasks before us. Far too often, demographic reports collapse data sets across many subcategories of community, running the risk of distorting, both by overstatement and understatement, the real shifts that underlie the new demographic.
There is an old saw shared among data analysts that states “Statisticians are people who, with their heads in the oven and feet in the freezer, on average feel just fine.” While averages and panoramic views are valuable, we must not neglect a close-up examination of the details. The difficulty is in finding the right combination of grain size and effect.
Most reporting on educational achievement and participation aggregate the Latino population characteristics. Broad trends show increasing drop-out rates, lower college enrollments, and widening achievement gaps. But on careful analysis, we see divergent trend lines for Latino subgroups when disaggregated for immigrant status, country of origin, and number of generations since migration. Economic, health, and household characteristics are similarly distorted. Such factors as fecundity and family size, small business ownership, and health insurance enrollment all vary greatly according to geographic location, country of origin, and years in residence.
Our understanding of “need” and our programming of “culturally responsive interventions” must be based on a true understanding of the people we work with, not an amalgamation of an “average” Latino. For example, here are some of the complexities of this data:
While there is a sharp increase in Latino populations within the United States, it is not largely a sharp increase across the United States. More than half the Latino population resides in just two states: California and Texas. Three-quarters of the population can be found in just seven states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, and New Jersey). Interestingly, New Mexico is not among these seven, even though its population is more than 42 percent Latino, the highest of any state. In general, the Latino population is an urban population, 90 percent of whom live in metropolitan regions.
Latino communities are not integrated amalgams of Latino heritage. Although Latinos have many countries of origin, this diversity is rarely evident at the local level. Populations tend to cluster by place of origin. For example, this concentration creates a Puerto Rican majority among Latinos in two states: Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The largest Puerto Rican population in the United States is found in New York City (followed by Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), where Puerto Ricans also comprise the greatest share of the city’s Latino population (37 percent). While the Cuban population is not a majority in any state, nearly two-thirds of all Cuban Latinos live in Florida, and they are the majority Latino population in Miami-Dade County. More than half of the United States’ Dominican-origin population resides in New York City.
Although there are Latinos from many diverse places of origin, only four sources of immigration have established very large sized communities within the United States. Most Latinos’ country of origin is Mexico (58.5 percent). Other major places of origin include Puerto Rico (9.6 percent), Cuba (3.5 percent), and the Dominican Republic (2.2 percent). Of the remaining 26.2 percent of the Latino population, no one country of origin is identified as a source of more than 2 percent of the Latino population.
While Latino families are younger on average, there is a greater difference in median age within the disaggregated Latino community than between the aggregated Latino community and the U.S. average. The median age in the United States is 35.5 years, and the median age for Latinos is 25.9 years. However, for those of Mexican origin, the median age is 24.2; for Puerto Ricans, 27.3; and for Cubans, 40.7. Even given these broad distributions of age, some family patterns are consistent across the Latino communities. Latino families are generally larger than the average family in the United States (3.95 people versus 3.2 people), and they are more likely to represent intact families. Sixty-three percent of Latino children under age 18 live with both parents.
As these examples indicate, the Latino population of the United States is not a single integrated community or culture. Patterns of origin and dispersal vary widely, and within each subpopulation, marked differences are evident in family, economic, and social structure. Differences in needs are striking as well. For example, women who emigrate from Mexico have a fertility rate that is nearly twice that of child-bearing-age women in Mexico. Programs in health and family planning that exist in Mexico today reflect some of the same goals of the now discontinued U.S. programs of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Is there an unmet need?
Only by developing a more complete understanding of the underlying factors that define the features of the current demographic shifts will we be able to adequately identify both the central needs of the community and “what works for whom and in what context.” No one-size-fits-all approach will succeed in addressing the complex needs of these divergent subgroups, and broad-based national programs may need multiple and targeted iterations to be effective.
Funding agencies, evaluation experts, and program developers often find it difficult to break away from a single, often national, standard while developing their initiatives. After all, one goal and one intervention for all can, on average, seem fair and prudent. However, so long as we are impelled to action by data, and implored to work in an environment of data-based decision making, we must work to ensure that the data tell a full and complete story. It is also a more complex story, but within that complexity are the potential keys to our success. By ensuring that our program goals, interventions, and evaluations are sensitive to the grain of disaggregated communities, we can work more effectively and will increase the likelihood of success.
EDC has a long history of generating programs that are sensitive to local custom and habit. We hope that through our programming in Latino communities across the nation we are demonstrating our continual commitment to the principles of getting “beneath the surface” and engaging with the true needs and priorities of our community partners.
Originally published on April 1, 2004