New Poverty Numbers Remind Latinos: We Must Grow Our Power

"There are 5.4 million Hispanic children in poverty, more than any other group; and our kids have among the highest poverty rates of any racial and ethnic group at more than 30 percent." (Photo: Thomas Hawk)

New Poverty Numbers Remind Latinos: We Must Grow Our Power

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released 2013 numbers on poverty in the United States and it is a mixed bag: poverty levels in the U.S. are decreasing--but not nearly enough. In fact, the changes are so minimal that they are not statistically significant for most groups. The two positive changes in the numbers are for children and Latinos, both of whom saw decent decreases in terms of their poverty rates and total number of people in poverty. But the fact remains that poverty levels have not gone back to prerecession numbers for any group, wages continue to be stagnant, and family income remains unchanged.

Let's flesh this out: it's worth a reminder that poverty is defined as living at or below the poverty line, which for a family of four in 2013 was $23,834. Yep, that is not a typo--there isn't supposed to be a "6" where the "2" is. Not sure how anyone makes a living with less than $30K but that is another topic for another day.

Now back to the numbers: 14.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2013--that represents more than 45 million people, including 13 million Latinos. While this poverty rate is lower than in 2012, it is a decrease of only .5 percent. Among Latinos the decrease was a respectable 2 percentage points--down from 25.6 percent in 2012 to 23.5 percent in 2013.

The Latino child poverty rate also fell for a third year in a row. In 2013, the poverty rate among Hispanic kids was 30.4 percent, compared to 33.8 in 2012 and 34.1 in 2011. But it's clear we still have a long way to go: there are 5.4 million Hispanic children in poverty, more than any other group; and our kids have among the highest poverty rates of any racial and ethnic group at more than 30 percent.

While the economy improved in 2013 that hasn't translated into significantly better economic outcomes for the low-income workers or the middle class. Median family income stayed virtually the same between 2012 and 2013, continuing its 14-year decline due in large part to stagnant wages. Although income for Latinos did rise from $39,572 to 40,963 in 2013, it is still lower than the $43,025 that Hispanics earned in 2006.

It is also worth underscoring that millions of Latinos are working at poverty-level wages. While the unemployment rate for Hispanics declined between September 2012 and August 2013--from 8.9 percent to 7.5 percent--more than 40 percent of Latino workers earn poverty level wages.

These poverty numbers are not a reality that we can't change. As my colleagues Rebecca Vallas and Melissa Boteach write there are policy solutions that can reverse these trends. For example, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would benefit 6.8 million Latinos;good jobs--with fair pay and benefits such as paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days--would also make a difference in lifting people out of poverty. Moreover, key investments in education, job training and child care would improve the livelihoods of all Americans, including Latinos. And let's not forget immigration reform to help workers who are already contributing to this nation's economy earn a good living that supports their families.

But Congress seems intent on making things worse. In 2013, this Congress enacted across-the-board cuts in education, job training, and child care services, alongside reductions in nutrition assistance, housing, and other vital programs for low-income families. Congress must change course and invest in job creation, pass comprehensive immigration reform, raise the minimum wage, and enact measures to improve the economic security of all families.

For Latinos the stakes are high. While the reduction in poverty in our community is good news during an otherwise disappointing time (given the lack of movement on issues that we care about--like immigration reform), much work remains. This new set of numbers are yet another reminder that we need to grow our power and influence so that we elect leaders in Congress who will focus on creating and strengthening the ladder of opportunity for all Americans--including Latinos.

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