George Bush is trying to attract Hispanic voters by speaking Spanish and nominating a reactionary Latino lawyer as a federal judge. But the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda has examined congressional voting records. They have found that the right-wing Republicans have voted against Hispanic interests almost every time. With so much at stake in the coming elections, Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) is a good time to examine the economic conditions of Hispanic people in the United States.

Even before the recession and Sept. 11, Latinos faced discrimination and economic hardship. And, it has been getting worse.

Since 1972, the U.S. census bureau has released statistics for Hispanic families. Usually, we look at median family income. Median means in the middle. Half of all families make more than the median, half make less.

In 1972, the median Hispanic family income was $34,696 (in 2001 dollars). That was 70 percent of the income of the median non-Hispanic white family. For the next 20 years, things got worse – by 1990, the median Hispanic family income dropped to $31,749 – 61 percent of the median white family.

In the last half of the 1990s, when the incomes of the rich soared out of all control, a little bit trickled down to the rest of us. The median income of Hispanic families rose to $34,490 – almost as high as it had been 30 years earlier! But this was only 60 percent of non-Hispanic white families – far worse than 1972, and further behind even than 1990.

Hispanic families, like other people of color, face many extra expenses. Whether buying or renting, limited choice results in higher direct housing costs, and higher taxes and financing costs. Prices for food and other commodities are higher in the inner- city areas where many Hispanics live. Transportation costs are also higher. In Connecticut, for example, outright discrimination in purchasing and financing, combined with higher insurance and taxes, can add up to $1,000 per year to the cost of owning a car for Hispanic drivers.

Immigrant workers face additional burdens. Although they pay the same taxes as everyone else, immigrants can be denied many benefits and services – especially if they are undocumented.

Now, we have a stubborn recession, and the aftermath of Sept. 11. The recession, which has now lasted 18 months, shows no sign of easing. Hispanic family income fell sharply during the last recession (1989-1990) and for several years afterwards. There is every reason to fear that the same pattern will repeat, wiping out the small gains made between 1995 and 2001.

September 11 is also taking a toll. The hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, etc. – was hit hard after Sept. 11. Thousands were laid off – from 25 percent to 40 percent of hospitality workers in major cities. In many of these cities – Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas – immigrants are a majority of laid-off workers. Most were not eligible for unemployment compensation.

New “security” measures are specially burdensome to immigrant workers. A well-known example is the airport screeners – immigrants, many of them Hispanic, have lost their jobs, to be replaced with U.S. citizens. Less well known is the problem with drivers licenses. Undocumented workers can get licenses in only a few states. But even legal immigrants are sometimes denied licenses. In Connecticut, for example, the Department of Motor Vehicles wants to refuse licenses to legal immigrants who do not have “permanent resident” status.

Regulations like these are more than an inconvenience – they impose a substantial economic burden: lost jobs, expenses involved in meeting or getting around the regulations, thousands of dollars for immigration lawyers.

I attended a meeting where Latino immigrants were discussing the problems they face – with drivers’ licenses, with violation of minimum wage and safety laws, with trying to organize unions. One worker from Central America said that this was his first meeting. “I’m glad to be here,” he said. “We have to fight back.”

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Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and leader in Ohio Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.