New Report Breaks Down Poverty Levels Among Latinos

PHOTO: Latino men eat Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, California.

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Latinos are anything but homogenous, a fact underscored by a new Census Bureau report that shows a significant variance in poverty rates among different subgroups of Hispanics.

The overall poverty rate for Hispanics is about 23 percent, but that number alone doesn't do the millions of diverse Latinos living in the United States justice. The average Mexican, for example, has a very different life story than the average Cuban.

About 50 million Hispanics live in the United States, according to the report. Most, more than 31 million, are Mexican, followed by Puerto Rican, at about 4.5 million. About 1.7 million Cubans live in the country, followed closely by Salvadorans. There are about 1.4 million Dominicans, and 1 million Guatemalans.

Cubans have the lowest poverty rate of all Hispanics at 16.2 percent, while Dominicans are the poorest with more than a quarter – 26.3 percent – living below the poverty line. Mexicans, the largest group of Hispanics in the country, also have a poverty rate slightly above average, as do Puerto Ricans and Guatemalans. Salvadorans join Cubans below the average poverty rate.

Those numbers aren't random.

Many Cubans, who overwhelmingly reside in Florida, immigrated earlier than other groups. They live and work in the United States legally, and they are more educated and more likely to own homes. Some of the Cubans who came in the 1960s were well-educated professionals fleeing the Castro regime. Their experiences are very different from those of, say, Mexicans who crossed the southern border without documentation to seek work picking crops.

Similarly, many Salvadorans came to the United States in the 1980s fleeing civil war and political unrest, while others came in the early 2000s after a series of natural disasters. As a result, they are granted Temporary Protected Status, meaning the U.S. recognizes that Salvadorans cannot return to El Salvador safely. TPS allows people to obtain work authorization, which may make it easier to find jobs that pay a living wage than it is for some undocumented immigrants. Numbers back up that theory. Salvadorans are more likely to participate in the labor force than other immigrants, and they often work in construction, which typically pays more than field work or food service, other industries popular with Hispanic workers.

Dominicans, however, are more likely to be foreign-born than other Hispanics, and most immigrated after 1990, meaning they have had less time to establish roots than, for instance, Cubans. Many came as a result of economic hardship and entered the country with few resources.

The report takes a deeper look at the latter, the poorest group of Latinos. It compares Dominican poverty rates in the 20 U.S. cities most populated by Dominicans. Poverty rates were highest for Dominicans in Reading and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and lowest for Dominicans in Elizabeth and West New York Town, New Jersey. It's important to note that there may be cities were Dominicans are poorer; the report looks only at the cities with the most Dominicans.

The report also details overall Latino poverty by state. The Latino population in Alaska fares best of all 50 states with a poverty rate of just more than 10 percent. Hispanics in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee had especially high rates, all above 31 percent, and states in the southeast, including Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas had Hispanic poverty rates above 30 percent.

States with the highest Latino populations have somewhat lower poverty levels. About 20 percent of California Hispanics are poor, while about 25 percent of Texas Latinos are below the poverty level. Cuban-heavy Florida has a Hispanic poverty level of 19.5 percent.

The report used American Community Survey data from 2007 to 2011.

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