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Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies: Hispanics and the American Future
percentage points for Hispanics and blacks, respectively—Hispanic poverty held fast at more than 2.5 times the rate among whites.66 In 1999, more than one in five Hispanics lived below the official poverty line ($16,895 for a family of four or a meager $12 per day per person).67 Broken out by birthplace, declines in poverty were smallest for Puerto Ricans and greatest for Dominicans, who witnessed the largest drop in absolute poverty during the 1990s.68 Central American immigrants were less likely to be poor than were Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans of the same generation, but their poverty rates were higher than those of South Americans.69
The similar overall poverty rates for first-generation Mexicans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans have different sources. As the least-educated group, Mexicans have the lowest overall earning capacity, a liability that persists beyond the second generation. Predominantly recent immigrants with limited skills, Dominicans are, like Puerto Ricans, further handicapped by a high incidence of female-headed households. Having only one potential earner exacerbates the effects of women’s low average earnings in depressing household income. Combined, these conditions produce income shortfalls that are only minimally compensated by benefit programs.70
Poverty is especially pernicious for children because it is associated with many deleterious outcomes, such as low scholastic achievement, adolescent parenting, substance abuse, and violence.71 In 1999, more than one in four Hispanics under the age of 18 were poor, compared with nearly one in ten whites. Child poverty rates among Dominicans and Puerto Ricans—35 and 33 percent, respectively—were comparable to those of blacks. Cuban and South American youths experienced the lowest rates of poverty, between 16 and 17 percent. Child poverty rates of Mexicans and Central Americans approached the Hispanic population average—28 and 24 percent, respectively—which is well above the 17 percent overall U.S. poverty rate for those under 18.72 Elevated Hispanic child poverty rates are particularly disturbing because the relatively young age structure of the population implies large and growing numbers of the youthful poor, and because poverty magnifies the challenges of assimilation and integration for the burgeoning second generation.
Poverty levels are also elevated among elderly Hispanics. The elderly are only a small proportion of the Hispanic population today, but their numbers will grow rapidly in the future. Today’s elderly provide a glimpse of how current Hispanic workers are likely to fare at advanced ages, depending on whether the present Social Security and Medicare safety nets remain