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We Cannot Allow Latino Gains to Be Reversed by the Pandemic

The community deserves better.

Noreen Sugrue, Director of Research, Latino Policy Forum 

The pre-pandemic socio-economic gains by Latinos, the release of the preliminary 2020 census data, and the roller coaster that is COVID all together provide an opportunity to understand how COVID is far more than a health issue. It is a threat to the ability of the Latino community to extend their pre-pandemic gains in educational attainment, income, and labor force participation, among others. And the start of Hispanic Heritage Month is the perfect opportunity to look at all that.

Two studies provide a detailed and illuminating story of the pre-pandemic Latino gains and contributions. Prior to March 2020, both nationally and in Illinois, Latinos were making impressive socioeconomic strides. For example, Latinos were far more likely than non-Latinos to be working. In 2018, Latinos in Illinois had a labor force participation rate 6.5 percent higher than non-Latinos. From 2013 to 2018, Latino income in the United States grew almost 70 percent faster than the income of non-Latinos. Between 2017 and 2018, Latino consumption growth was about 12 times faster than for non-Latinos. In Illinois, there was an approximately 2.5 percent growth rate in homeownership for Latinos between 2010 and 2018, compared to an actual negative rate—nearly -0.5 percent—for non-Latinos.

National data comparing Latino college graduates to their non-Latino counterparts show that growth in educational attainment among Latinos was 2.6 times faster. In Illinois, the gap was even wider: 2.9 times faster for Latinos.

At the same time, the importance of population growth for economic strength cannot be overstated. And it is Latinos whose numbers are among the most significant for ensuring that growth. In Illinois, for example, between 2010 and 2018, the Latino population grew annually by about 29,000, while there was an average annual decrease of about 20,000 non-Latinos. The preliminary 2020 census data shows continual Latino population growth nationally and in individual states, including Illinois. 

All of this underscores the incredible strides that Latinos were making pre-pandemic. Their contributions to the economic vitality and stability of the nation, as well as to their state and local economies, cannot be overstated.

Things Were Looking Up Until…

Enter COVID. Latinos are the racial/ethnic group which has been the most disproportionately impacted by COVID. Whether it is rates of diagnosed cases, deaths, or percent of cases among those aged 20-59, it is Latinos who are carrying the heaviest health burdens. And it is Latinos who are shouldering the most pandemic-caused disruptions to their socioeconomic conditions. 

According to a recent Pew Research report, almost half of Latinos said they or someone in their household has lost a job or wages since February 2020. At the start of the pandemic, the employment situation was complicated for Latinos. They were—and still are—overrepresented in jobs that were deemed essential (e.g., maintenance, retail, construction, and manufacturing), while at the same time designated as high risk. Those labor sectors put workers at greatest risk for occupationally acquired infection.

At the same time, pandemic-induced job losses were greatest in labor sectors where Latinos are also disproportionately represented (e.g., personal care, childcare, and leisure and hospitality). As early analysis by Latino Decisions showed, Latinos were the most likely to not have the required economic cushion to weather job loss.

An illustration of the pandemic’s threat to the economic stability of Latinos is found by examining Latino unemployment rates. Between 2019 and 2020, the Latino unemployment rate increased by approximately 142 percent. And even with recent gains in overall employment, the Latino unemployment rate today is still about 49 percent higher than it was two years ago. 

A recent UCLA analysis shows that Latina employment is even more dire. Pre-pandemic, Latinas were projected to have the greatest growth in labor force participation; estimates showed the growth to be almost 26 percent by 2029. For Latinas between the ages of 25 and 54, however, labor force participation fell from a pre-pandemic rate of 71 percent to 67 percent in May 2021. 

Latino students have experienced the largest shifts in undergraduate college enrollment, and the latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center paint a grim picture. In pre-pandemic 2020, there was an increase of 2.1 percent of  Latinos enrolled at four-year public colleges; and a 1.7 percent increase in community college enrollment. The 2021 figures show a 1.9 decrease at four-year public colleges and a staggering 13.7 percent decline at community colleges.This is particularly notable as half of all Latino students in higher education attend community colleges.

When it comes to housing, Latinos are overburdened with costs, and many are just one small emergency away from losing it all, as noted in a recent Latino Policy Forum publication. 

The pre- and post-pandemic socioeconomic conditions of Latinos remind us that as the celebrations for Hispanic Heritage Month continue, we must ensure that special attention is given to the socioeconomic devastation that COVID has wreaked upon Latinos.

At the same time, pressure also must be brought to bear on elected officials and policymakers to ensure that resources directed at fixing what COVID has broken must reflect both the socioeconomic importance of the communities and the severity of the damage COVID has done to them. 

Significant resources must be allocated so that the Latino community, the country, and the state of Illinois can move forward and recover from the socioeconomic devastation brought on by the pandemic.