Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy

Se Siente, Se Siente, Nuestra Gente Esta Presente: Latinos and the Search for Twenty-First-Century Economic Empowerment

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy

Se Siente, Se Siente, Nuestra Gente Esta Presente: Latinos and the Search for Twenty-First-Century Economic Empowerment

Article excerpt


In the past several years, researchers and pundits have spoken about the growth of the US Latino community in very narrow terms. The national discourse has mainly focused on the electoral impact our community can have, particularly since the 2008 presidential election. (1) Yet our surge in numbers has more far-reaching impact than the ballot box alone. At 16 percent, Latinos constitute the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce. Estimates project that by 2050, one in three working Americans will be Latino. (2) With a share of the economy that great, Latinos actually hold significant influence over the health and longevity of the American economy.

Still, Latino workers remain marginalized within a few specific industries. In industries such as construction and manufacturing, hotels and restaurants, and the service sector, opportunities for upward socioeconomic mobility remain limited due to weak worker protections. Latinos in these industries continue to be vulnerable to employer violations like wage theft and misclassification, amongst other exploitive practices. The Latino worker is thus at the center of the debate around growing income inequality. At its highest level since the Great Depression, our inability to close this gap will lead to stagnant living standards for Latinos in the short term and a weakened economy for all Americans in the long-term. (3) Indeed, the twentieth century was a different world for labor protections and standards, but it remains to be discovered how economic empowerment will change in the twenty-first century as Latino workers increasingly drive economic growth.

Quienes Somos? Latinos in the Workforce

Labor trends have shown that the Latino community's primary occupations are in the service sector, construction and maintenance, as well as sales, office and administrative support. These jobs are located in a private sector where we have seen the continual erosion of workplace protections, a pattern that has mirrored the decline in union density to just 6.7 percent. (4)

The Latino share of the workforce will continue to grow to nearly 30 percent by 2050. (5) This is an astounding figure considering the potential purchasing power of Latino households in an economy that is largely consumption based. However, Latinos take home less money per paycheck than do African Americans, Asian Americans, or Whites. The median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers are $578 for Latinos compared to the $802 for Whites. (6) The disparity is clear and a large reason why 6.7 million Latinos would be affected by a raise in the federal minimum wage. (7)

The disparity in educational attainment between Latinos and other ethnic groups also prevents Latinos from avoiding unemployment and achieving higher-paid positions. Latinos represent only 18 percent of those in the workforce with a bachelor's degree or higher. (8) As it stands now, these factors hold our present and future economic potential hostage. The debate about how to increase educational attainment for Latinos is a separate policy area to examine, but the centrality of its importance in achieving more stable quality jobs is uncontested.

The question is not whether the Latino workforce can have positive impacts on the overall economy, but, rather, whether Latinos will have stable middle-class jobs with worker protections or continue to be over-represented in low-wage jobs. Growth in the Latino workforce is inevitable, and we must actively create safeguards and economic opportunity to help end income inequality.

Twentieth-Century Labor Law

Worker protections are a silver lining afforded only after years of struggle in the United States. The passage of several laws in the twentieth century set the bar for what has become commonplace in today's work life'. One of the main federal labor law victories was the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935. …

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