Poverty Immigration and Latinos in U.S. Texas Colonias

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

About thirty-eight million people live under what is considered poverty in the United States (USCB 2009), which is equivalent to 13 percent of the nation's population. This system, however, is a limited way to define poverty. Other authors have proposed different methods of approaching disadvantaged groups in terms of "exclusion" and "access" (Besharov and Germanis 2004; Bhalla and Lapeyre 1997), involving quality of life indicators from housing, health, and education to socialization and political participation. In this paper, I concentrate on two dimensions of a broad definition of poverty--the built environment and financial exclusion--and argue that they are the foundation of social justice.

This paper speaks to these concepts through Texas colonias on the United States-Mexico border region. The thought path is based on our field work there since 2001, exploring various aspects of housing, economic activity and financial access, land tenure, and planning and development.

Colonias are poor settlements, usually located in semirural areas on the outskirts of cities, along the border region with Mexico. Estimates suggest that in Texas, around half a million people live in over sixteen hundred colonias, where living conditions resemble those in developing countries. Colonia residents in Texas are mainly of Latino origin, although more than half are born in the United States. This paper focuses on poverty and exclusion in the context of these colonias.

I first discuss poverty and how it is defined in the United States. Next I concentrate on two dimensions of poverty, the built environment and financial access, which become the core of the discussion on poverty and social justice. The following section focuses on Texas colonias and how the built environment and financial exclusion actually happen in these settlements. I present one successful microloan program that addresses these two aspects of poverty. Finally I draw some general conclusions and make a few policy recommendations.

II. Poverty, Immigration, and the Unbanked

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (USCB), thirty-eight million people are defined as living in poverty in the United States. The USCB uses a set of income thresholds varying by family size and composition to determine poverty in the country (USCB 2009). If the family or individual has an overall income less than a predefined threshold, then the family or individual is considered to be living in poverty. Income thresholds are updated yearly for inflation,. The 2008 poverty threshold for an individual under sixty-five years of age was $11,201.

Poverty is highly concentrated in the United States, spatially, racially, and socially (Partridge and Rickman 2005). Figure 1 shows poverty rates by ethnic groups for the latest year official statistics are available with this level of detail (USCB 2009).

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The highest poverty concentration is in minorities, mainly African Americans and Hispanics, and in recent immigrants. The bar graph shows that the poverty rate for all races was 12.5 percent. Comparing other races with this overall percentage, poverty rates for non-Hispanic whites (8.2 percent) and for Asians (10.2 percent) are relatively low, yet they are relatively high for African Americans (24.5 percent) and Hispanics (21.5 percent). A high proportion of the Hispanic population includes new immigrants, who are more likely to be classified as poor.

Gender disparities are also prevalent. More females (14.5 percent) than males (11.6 percent) are poor (USBC 2009), due to the fact that the women/men earnings ratio is less than 1. A ratio higher than 1 would mean that women earn more than men, while a ratio of 1 would mean men and women have equal earnings. In 2007 this ratio was 0.775 at the national level. A ratio less than 1 is found in all fifty states, ranging from the lowest (0.63) in Wyoming to the highest (0. …