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Recession Might Hit Latinos Hardest

Study: The group includes a vast immigrant population especially vulnerable to a downturn.

January 25, 2002|MARLA DICKERSON and PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Latinos, a group that made major economic strides in the late 1990s, could rank among the biggest losers of the current recession, according to research released Thursday.

Concentrated in industries hammered by layoffs and lacking the education and financial resources of other ethnic groups, Latinos are seeing hard-won economic gains erode as their unemployment rises. Forecasts released by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center predict that Latino family income, employment and poverty rates are unlikely to return to pre-recession levels until late 2004 at the earliest.

And if the current downturn were to mimic the early-'90s recession, Latino unemployment would not return to its pre-recession levels until March 2008--two years later than whites and African Americans, said Jonathan Orszag, a researcher who prepared employment forecasts for the study.

"I think it's fair to say that Latinos will be hit the hardest by the economy, and it will be toughest for them to rebound," said Eric Rodriguez, economic mobility project director of the Latino rights group National Council of La Raza. "We need some provisions that are going to provide some basic protections for families and help workers get better jobs."

A variety of factors explain why Latinos appear especially vulnerable to a downturn, chief among them a vast immigrant population possessing limited English, education and job skills.

Still, researchers say their most surprising--and discouraging--finding is that many young American-born Latinos are faring worse than their immigrant parents in employment. The jobless rate for second-generation Latinos hit 9.6% in December, compared with 8% for their first-generation counterparts.

"You're talking about people who were born and educated here," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan organization affiliated with USC. "Clearly, it's something we all should be paying attention to. That's the future work force."

Latinos account for just more than 11% of the U.S. work force, and about 28% of California's labor force.

The Pew researchers remain optimistic about the long-term economic prospects for Latinos, who made significant strides in the late 1990s. From 1995 to 2000, Latino median family income rose by 27%, compared with 11% for all families. But Latino employment has fallen dramatically recently. Last month, the Latino jobless rate reached 7.8%, up from a record low of 5% in October 2000. That rise has been similar to that of African Americans, whose unemployment rate reached 10.2% in December from a record low of 7.3% in September 2000.

Second-generation Latinos--English-speaking, American-born, U.S.-educated children of at least one immigrant parent--posted even higher unemployment rates than first-generation Latinos.

Age explains some of the difference, said Arturo Gonzalez of the University of Arizona, who contributed to the Pew research. Gonzalez said the average age of the 10 million second-generation U.S. Latinos is 19, compared with 37 for first-generation immigrants. Younger workers with less experience typically have higher unemployment.

But Gonzalez said the low academic achievement of U.S.-born Latinos also is a factor. Only about 8% of U.S. Latinos have a bachelor's degree or more, compared with 33% of non-Latinos. Gonzalez said American-born Latino youths often have more schooling than their parents, and high enough aspirations that they don't want to follow them into low-paying, blue-collar work. Yet they lack the education and skills.

They are young people such as 22-year-old Jaqueline Yanez of Boyle Heights. She's been laid off from two jobs in the last year, the first as a stock clerk, the other as a cashier. An 11th-grade dropout, Yanez knows she needs a diploma if she ever hopes to realize her dream of working in a hospital. But for now, she'll take a job. Any job.

"I've put in 20 applications in the last month, and nothing," said Yanez, who lives with her parents. "I'm older, so it's embarrassing not to have a job. I want to be independent."

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