Monday, February 7, 2011

The Measure of Latino Politics

THERE IS NO LACK OF RESPECTED ECONOMISTS WHO consider the United States to be not only in an economic crisis but in a crisis of governance as well.5 As noted, the policies and ideology of neoliberalism have clearly undermined the quality of life for millions of people. Unemployment has reached record levels, millions have lost their homes, social services have been either eliminated or severely limited, most cities and many states are either on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to deal with crumbling infrastructure, faltering educational systems, and inadequate medical facilities. This is the legacy of the neoliberal policies. And yet there is no prospect of removing these polices from the national political agenda.

Latino communities' particular pattern of growth and development have made them particularly susceptible to these effects.There have of course been very significant advances made by sectors of Latino communities as a result of the changes brought about by the civil rights movements and legislation of the 1960s. A small but significant professional class has emerged that often plays the role of a broker, articulating their version of Latino "issues" and "needs" for mainstream institutions. And the proportion of Latinos who have achieved middle-class status has increased significantly. But a majority still are relatively marginalized. As I mentioned above, the period of significant growth in the Latino population overlapped considerably with the period during which neoliberalism developed in the United States. This is no coincidence: Satisfying the demand for cheap labor was one of the central features of neoliberal restructuring, which promoted large-scale immigration, attracting workers from Mexico in particular.

Given the size and dispersion of Latino populations and the key role they played in several sectors of the economy, they became an integral part of the neoliberal transformation. In the last decade alone, the Latino population grew 42% and is expected to number weU over 50 miUion when the 2010 census is completed; Latinos are projected to compose more than a quarter of the national population by 2050. So it is clear that this population will continue to have an increasing effect on determining what kind of society the United States will become. Because of this, the economic and political conditions of Latino communities and their capacity to become full and equal members of society has to be a national concern and not treated as a "minority" issue. This is particularly clear when one looks at the fact that 20% of schoolchildren and 25% of newborns are Latino. When combined with statistics that show that Latinos between the ages 16 and 25 have a school dropout rate of 17% - almost twice the figure for African Americans and nearly three times that of whites - the demographic trends portend an alarming future of even greater fragmentation, division, and inequalities, with aE the ills and costs that these conditions entail.

Economically, Latinos have been directly affected by neoliberal policies. A 2009 report published by the National Council of La Raza, indicates that in 2007, 42% of Latino workers earned poverty level-wages (or about $10.20 per hour to support a family of four), compared to 34% for African American workers and 22% for white workers.7 And Latinos tend to be concentrated in occupations that are not only on the lower end of the wage scale, with Latino men earning 68% of white male wages and Latinas 77% of the wages of white women. They are also overrepresented in jobs that have been particularly hard hit by the ongoing recession, with a little more than 20% in production and food service jobs, close to a one third in construction and maintenance, and almost 40% in agriculture. The AFL-CIO reports significant job loss in many of these occupations with higher percentages of Latinos during the period between 2001 and 2005. So, for example, there were 289,000 (20%) jobs lost in machinery, 220,000 (47%) in apparel, 58,500 (13%) in furniture products, 260,100 (37%) in semiconductor and electronic components, 235,200 (13%) in fabricated metal products, 144, 800 (24%) in primary metals, 159,300 (20%) in printing, and the list goes on.

In addition, 48% of Latino workers had no health insurance through their employment, compared to 27% of white workers and 32.9% of African American workers. And two thirds (65%) of Latino workers did not have access to retirement plans in their jobs. At a more general level, a recent measure called the Hispanic inequality index has documented the level of inequality of Latinos. Using a number of statistical indices comparing Latinos to whites in five different areas, including economic standing, social justice, civic engagement, education, and health, the analysis concluded that the overall inequality index for Latinos is 72%, and most pronounced in the areas of economics and social justice.

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