Hispanic Unemployment Has Hit Record Lows. But Does That Mean Progress?

May 25, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 8:12 am

With the economy booming, Ernesto Martinez can barely keep up with all the construction work coming into the small drywall company he owns. He's part of a historic wave of Latino prosperity in America.

It wasn't always like this. Martinez remembers when he was 17. He had $120 to his name, and it was all in his pocket. It's how much he got paid for his first job in the U.S., as a mover. He says he stood there, mesmerized, in front of a shop window at the mall.

Martinez was looking at a pair of Air Jordans. They cost around $100.

"I fell in love with them," he says. He didn't speak English, so he turned to his brother and said, "Ask them to bring me a size 8."

"What do you want those shoes for?" his brother responded disapprovingly.

Martinez says that's when he decided to learn English, so he could go back and get the shoes.

Alondra, the daughter of Ernesto and Araceli, stands next to the Statue of Liberty in a family photo.
Mohamed Sadek for NPR

He had just arrived from Mexico. It was the 1990s, and cultural critics spoke of a "Latin explosion": Over the next two decades the Hispanic population would grow from 22.4 million people, to 50.5 million. But the numbers did not translate into power, or well-being: The 2000 census reported they had a poverty rate of 21.2% — nearly double the overall U.S. rate.

Martinez's wife, Araceli, had three cleaning jobs, but it was still hard to get by. She says the owners of one of the hotels where she worked made her do heavy lifting — such as moving furniture.

It was grueling, but she just couldn't afford to lose that job.

Across the U.S. today, there are plenty of jobs. Unemployment for Latinos is at 4.2% — the lowest in recorded history. And their poverty rate has gone down somewhat, to 18.3%.

Loading...

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

For the Martinez family, things have improved dramatically.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Araceli shows a reporter around her home in New Jersey. She and Ernesto were able to buy it in the early 2000s. It's beautiful, with an expansive backyard.

And it takes a lot of work to afford this place.

Alondra (left) and her mother, Araceli, look through family photographs after a Sunday Mass and family lunch. Araceli has three jobs to provide for her family.
Mohamed Sadek for NPR

Araceli still has three jobs: house cleaner, supermarket cashier and assistant at a day care. Both she and Ernesto say their incomes have barely budged in the past decade. But the cost of living has gone up. "Sometimes you have to have two or three jobs to make ends meet," Araceli says. "Everything is expensive. Food, utilities, car insurance."

So, despite low unemployment numbers, economists urge caution.

Yes, joblessness is down, and that's great. But Hispanics earn about one-fourth less than white workers do. And for some 7 million Central American and Mexican immigrants who don't have legal status, it's even harder to move up. Being undocumented often leads to exploitation. It makes it harder to get an education. It forces people to work for low wages in the informal economy. It makes it difficult to start and build a company.

Loading...

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Which is why, for all the talk about the Latin cultural explosion and unemployment going down, some academics and activists worry about the formation of a permanent Hispanic underclass in America.

Araceli sits in front of a photo of her daughter. Alondra is part of the record number of Hispanics enrolling in college.
Mohamed Sadek for NPR

But Ernesto and Araceli say they see a really bright future. And it's because of their daughter.

Alondra is 22 years old. She's the eldest of the two Martinez kids. When they were born, Ernesto says, he had a clear vision: He didn't want to see them doing drywall. "I want them to have a 9-to-5 job. I want them to be well-dressed and not dirty like we get dirty," he says.

As soon as Alondra was born, Ernesto started saving for her to go to college.

But as Alondra got older, she didn't see herself as the kind of person who goes into higher education. "Growing up, I was very aware of the kind of family I came from. When you don't have lawyers and doctors and people with careers in your family, you think it's so far-fetched. And it's like, so much money," she says.

A high school Spanish teacher spoke to her about New Jersey's Educational Opportunity Fund, the state's support program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

That's how Alondra ended up going to Montclair State University. She's part of the record number of Hispanics going to college: Enrollment nearly tripled between 1999 and 2016.

At this year's graduation ceremony for students in the Educational Opportunity Fund program, she gave a speech. Alondra was nervous at first.

Alondra (center) recently graduated from Montclair State University. She's part of the record number of Hispanics going to college: Enrollment nearly tripled between 1999 and 2016.
Courtesy of Montclair State University

"Being a first-generation college student means breaking every barrier, silencing every negative voice and pushing myself to be the woman I know I am meant to be," she said.

Then she turned to her parents. "Mamá, papá, lo logramos," she said. Mom, dad, we made it.

This fall, Alondra will be going to Rutgers University to pursue a master's degree in college student affairs. She dreams of being a college dean someday.

The Martinez family stands in front of their home in New Jersey. During a speech at her graduation, Alondra said to her parents: "Mamá, papá, lo logramos." Mom, dad, we made it.
Mohamed Sadek for NPR

Ernesto marvels at this. This generation's goal is to be lawyers, engineers and architects.

"That is their dream," he says. "And what was my dream?"

Nearly 30 years ago, it was a pair of Air Jordans.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Unemployment is at a historic low right now. Nationwide, it's at 3.6%. This week, NPR is bringing you profiles of how this affects different communities. Among Hispanics, joblessness has hit a low of 4.2%, but many say that is not all good news. There is still a wide income gap compared to whites. Hispanics earn about one-fourth less than white workers do. NPR's Jasmine Garsd spent time with one family who struggle to succeed, but there is one investment they have made that could change the family's entire future.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Ernesto Martinez remembers this one day when he was 17. He had 120 bucks to his name, and it was all in his pocket. That's how much he got paid for his first job in the U.S. as a mover. And he says he stood there, in front of a shop window at the mall. He was mesmerized. It was a pair of Air Jordans. They cost around $100.

ERNESTO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "I fell in love with them," he says. He didn't speak English, so he turned to his brother and said, ask them to bring me a size eight. And his brother responded disapprovingly, what do you want those shoes for? Martinez says that's when he decided to learn English so he could speak for himself and go back and buy the shoes. He'd just arrived from Mexico. It was the 1990s, and back then, if you turned on the radio, you might hear this No. 1 billboard hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA")

RICKY MARTIN: (Singing) Upside, inside out, she's living la vida loca. She'll push and pull you down.

GARSD: This is what pundits called the Latin explosion. Over the next two decades, the Hispanic population would grow from 22.4 million people to 50.5 million. But many Latinos were hardly living la vida loca. The 2000 Census reported that they had a poverty rate of 22.6%. Ernesto Martinez's wife, Araceli, had three cleaning jobs, and it was still hard to get by.

ARACELI MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She says the owners of one of the hotels she cleaned at made her do the heavy lifting, like moving furniture. It was grueling, but she just could not afford to lose that job. Today across the U.S., there is an abundance of jobs. Unemployment is at the lowest ever for Latinos, and their poverty rate has gone down somewhat.

ARACELI MARTINEZ: This is my kitchen. So this is the dining room.

GARSD: On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Araceli shows me around her home in southern New Jersey. They were able to buy it in the year 2000. It's beautiful. The backyard is expansive, and it takes a lot of work to afford this place. Araceli still has three jobs - cleaning houses, as a supermarket cashier and she's a day care assistant. Ernesto owns a small drywall company, and in this booming economy, there's so much construction, he can hardly keep up. Things have improved dramatically for this family, but Araceli says their income has barely budged in the last decade. And meanwhile, the cost of living has gone up.

ARACELI MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Sometimes you have to have two or three jobs to make ends meet," she says. Everything is expensive - food, utilities, car insurance. It's these details economists point to when heeding caution about the stunning unemployment numbers. Yes, joblessness is down, and that's great, but there's still this huge wage gap between Latinos and whites. And for some 7 million Central American and Mexican immigrants who don't have legal status, it's even harder to move up.

Being undocumented often leads to exploitation. It makes it harder to get an education. It forces people to work for low wages in the informal economy. It makes it difficult to start and build a company. Which is why for all the talk about the Latin cultural explosion and unemployment going down, there are activists who worry about the formation of a permanent Latino underclass in America. But Ernesto and Araceli Martinez say they actually see a really bright future, and it's because of their kids.

ARACELI MARTINEZ: Alondra.

GARSD: Alondra, or Alo, is 22 years old. She's the older of the two Martinez kids. When they were born, Ernesto says he had this really clear vision.

E MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He didn't want to see them doing drywall. He says, I want them to have a 9-to-5 job. I want them to be well dressed and not dirty like we get dirty. As soon as she was born, he started saving for her college. He saw it as an investment. The problem is as Alondra got older, she didn't see herself as the kind of person who goes into higher education.

ALONDRA MARTINEZ: I feel like growing up, I was very aware of the kind of family I came from. I feel like when you're - when you don't know, when you don't have people that are, like, lawyers and doctors and people with careers in your family, then you think it's so farfetched and it's, like, so much money.

GARSD: It was a high school Spanish teacher who spoke to her about New Jersey's Educational Opportunity Fund, the state's support program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That's how Alondra ended up at Montclair State University. She's part of the record number of Hispanics going to college. Nationwide, enrollment nearly tripled between 1999 and 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIR EDWARD ELGAR'S "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE")

GARSD: She graduated this month with a degree in human development. At the ceremony for the Educational Opportunity Fund's students, she gave a speech. She was nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALONDRA MARTINEZ: Sorry. I didn't expect to be so emotional.

GARSD: But she started.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALONDRA MARTINEZ: Being a first-generation college student means breaking every barrier, silencing every negative voice and pushing myself to be the woman I know I am meant to be.

GARSD: And then she broke format, speaking in Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALONDRA MARTINEZ: And to my parents, Mama, Papa (speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Mom, Dad, we made it." In fall of this year, Alondra Martinez will be going to Rutgers University to get her master's degree in college student affairs. She dreams of being dean of a university someday. She'll likely earn many times what her parents do. Her father, Ernesto, marvels at this. This generation's goal is to be lawyers, engineers, architects.

E MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "That is their dream," he says. "And what was my dream? Nearly 30 years ago, it was a pair of Air Jordans."

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.