As theU.S. population approaches the 300 million mark, Hispanics—who presently number more than 40 million residents—are entering a crucial phase in their long and complex history. As a result of both continuing immigration and natural increase, the Hispanic population is growing by more than 1.5 million annually.1 Today Hispanics make up approximately 13 percent of the total U.S. population. In 2030, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. residents will be Hispanic, up from nearly 1 in 7 in 2005. Over time, many Hispanics lose their individual nation-based identities through both intermarriage and a shift in their perceptions of themselves.2
Past waves of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean fueled Hispanic population growth during the last two decades of the 20th century, and while immigration is still a potent force behind the numbers, today the children and grandchildren of immigrants are spurring the increase. The growth of these second- and third-generation Hispanics, their socioeconomic diversification, their increasing geographic dispersal, and their entitlements as U.S.-born citizens will have major social, economic, cultural, and political impacts on the nation between now and midcentury—impacts that will be intensified by the simultaneous aging of the larger white population. Growing numbers of Hispanics are finishing school, entering the labor market, joining health care systems, and becoming engaged in local and national political arenas, while also helping to refashion consumer markets.
That Hispanics are coming of age in an aging society has important implications for the nation’s future. As the youngest segment of the U.S. population, second- and third-generation Hispanics could play a vital role in shouldering the burden of a graying society. Yet realizing this potential productivity boost will depend on whether the necessary educational investments are made. Such investments will determine whether these young people will acquire sufficient human capital—literacy, education, and job skills—to gain access to higher-skilled jobs and avail themselves of new opportunities for social inclusion. Also crucial will be new social policies that both promote their integration into social and political institutions and foster greater equity in economic arenas.
An emphasis in this report, then, is on the potential costs of underinvesting in the young Hispanic population, as well as the perils of allowing a large and growing undocumented population to live on the fringes of society. There currently exists a rising skill gap between Hispanics and whites. Although this gap is largely the product of the sizable number of low-skill immigrants, schooling trends among the native born contribute to it. Even as the number of Hispanic college graduates has reached an all-time high, thousands of native-born Hispanic youths are failing to complete high school. The high premium on skill in today’s labor market will magnify the deleterious consequences of Hispanics’ low educational attainment in the future. Indeed, low levels of formal schooling and poor English proficiency account for the large number of Hispanics in service-sector jobs, as well as their low average wages, relatively poor health status, and weak civic engagement.
This report is the product of a 2-year study by a panel of experts convened by the National Academies and supported by several foundations and U.S. government agencies. This panel was charged with conducting a study of the significant demographic changes taking place among the U.S. Hispanic population and their progress relative to the mainstream in several key areas. The panel could also consider ways to improve related data collection. The main purpose of the report is to help inform future policy debate and provide government, public institutions, and the private sector with the information needed to allocate resources for the enduring benefit of both the Hispanic population and the nation as a whole.
In the edited volume Hispanics and the Future of America that serves as the companion to this report, readers will find a more detailed review of Hispanics’ history, demography, geography, education, family, employment,
economic well-being, health, and political engagement. That information provided much of the evidence for the discussion in this report. Appendix A describes the panel’s additional activities and statistical sources consulted.3 Biographical sketches of panel members and staff are provided in Appendix B and contents of the companion volume Hispanics and the Future of America are in Appendix C.
The report is organized as follows. Chapter 2 presents a review of the origins of Hispanics in the United States, their patterns of immigration, and the demographic and political forces that have shaped them as a minority group, as well as a contemporary demographic profile. It describes how Hispanics joined Native Americans in what is now the United States and how they came to become immigrants in their own land, and considers the contributions of immigration and fertility to the current growth and diversification of the Hispanic population, including the sizable numbers who remain undocumented. The issue of legal status is examined in some detail.
Chapter 3 reviews the origins of the “Hispanic” identity and examines self-identity and language/linguistic assimilation among Hispanics today. It also considers such questions as whether there is in fact a unique Hispanic identity and whether Hispanics are a separate race. Finally, the chapter indicates how data on the Hispanic population can be improved.
Chapter 4 addresses the challenges of social, economic, and political integration in the context of rising inequality, the growing trend among Hispanics to settle in locales beyond their traditional areas of residence, and patterns of Hispanic civic engagement. It identifies important ways in which Hispanics differ from earlier immigrant groups with emphasis on contextual issues, notably contemporary economic conditions and the aging majority population.
Chapter 5 examines four key dimensions of the Hispanic experience: family and living arrangements, schools and education, economic well-being, and health status and access to care. The discussion highlights the risks and opportunities whose outcomes will shape the future of Hispanics in the United States.
The uncertainties associated with the risks and opportunities identified in Chapter 6 are conveyed by the title of the final chapter—“Uncertain Destinies.” Will Hispanics realize increased economic well-being and a greater political voice, allowing them to share fully in the nation’s prosperity? One certainty is emphasized: that the potential demographic dividend
of the labor market participation of the youthful Hispanic population, as well as Hispanics’ social and economic future, will be compromised by underinvestment in the education of their second generation.