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Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies: Hispanics and the American Future
adolescents and its attendant health consequences are averted, and whether Hispanics’ geographic dispersal accelerates their spatial and social integration. Also uncertain is whether the demographic dividend afforded by the Hispanic age bulge will be realized.
The effects of Hispanics on U.S. schools, health care systems, labor markets, and political organizations are occurring even as their own ethnic contours are being reshaped by immigration, intermarriage, new settlement patterns, language shift, and the adoption of collective panethnic identities, as well as by changing definitions of race and emergent racial identities. Because Hispanics’ collective and ethnic-specific experiences differ in notable ways from those of African Americans, and because U.S. economic conditions and opportunity structures today differ greatly from those encountered by European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, the experiences of those groups are not a reliable indicator of how Hispanics will affect the American future.
The Hispanic future will also be shaped by uncertainty about the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. economy as China and India become major players on the international scene, about changes in geopolitical and economic ties with our southern neighbors, and about possibilities for resolving the status of the 8.5 million Hispanics who live and work without the guarantees of legal status. Until the question of legal status is resolved, the social prospects of undocumented immigrants’ U.S.-born children will be limited. Although the Supreme Court ruled that no child can be denied access to public education, irrespective of his or her legal status, this ruling does not apply to higher education, which is becoming ever more critical for labor market success.17
During the first quarter of the 21st century, the Hispanic age bulge will offer a unique opportunity to improve the common good by attenuating the social and economic costs of an aging majority population while enhancing national productivity and global competitiveness. Realizing this potential will require educational investments that position future entrants into the labor force to compete for high-paying jobs in a service and information economy. Many other benefits—civic integration, adoption of positive health behaviors, wealth accumulation, and social mobility—will follow, though often at the price of cultural distinctiveness.
The opportunity costs of not closing the Hispanic–white education gap are considerable. The most significant medium-term cost is the relegation of adult Hispanic workers to unstable, low-paying jobs at the lowest rungs of the occupational ladder. A longer-term consequence is the