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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Shierholz: Investing in the Future of Hispanic Americans

By Heidi Shierholz

At the beginning of National Hispanic American Heritage Month, Secretary Perez emphasized the importance of expanding opportunity for Latinos, writing "The strength of our economy in the decades to come depends on investing in them, their skills and their education. Closing opportunity gaps isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the only sensible strategy for a nation that wants to – and must – tap every available source of human capital. We don’t have a person to spare in America."

Indeed, if our country had not invested in young Tom Perez—an American child of Dominican parents—we might not be benefiting from his leadership of the Department of Labor today.

As we come to the close of Hispanic Heritage Month, I’d like to add some additional context to remind us how the Great Recession and subsequent recovery affected the Latino community and how we can expand opportunity for more Hispanic Americans.

The Latino unemployment rate shot up during the recession—more than doubling from 5.7 percent in 2007 to a peak of 13.1 percent in August 2009. But even more striking to me – both then and now – are the large number of Latinos working part-time who want full-time jobs. As Figure 1 shows, at the peak of the recession in 2009, approximately 12 percent of Latinos at work were working fewer than 35 hours a week, even though they wanted full-time work. Even now, in the twelve months ending in September 2014, 8.1 percent of Latinos were involuntary part-time, higher than the percentage of Blacks (7.2 percent) and Whites (5.0 percent).

Latina women are especially hurt by this trend, with 9.1 percent working part time for economic reasons, significantly higher than Latino men at 7.4 percent. Moreover, Latina women are less likely to participate in the labor force than Latino men. These figures underscore why it’s so important for the US to Lead on Leave: making sure family-friendly policies can reach all workers.

Of course, earnings are where the rubber meets the road, and as the figure below demonstrates, full-time Latino workers bring home significantly less money ($31,600) than Blacks ($36,700) or Whites ($45,400). This is partly because Latinos are over-represented among low wage workers: despite only accounting for 16% of all workers, Latinos account for 25% of workers affected by a minimum wage increase to $10.10. That’s why raising the minimum wage is critical for making sure hard work is rewarded with fair pay.

At the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Secretary challenged us to expand opportunity for everyone, not just this month but every month of the year.

Here at the Department of Labor, we’re working every day to make sure the opportunities of a growing economy are available to everyone, because ultimately that investment more than pays for itself.

Heidi Shierholz is the chief economist at the Department of Labor.

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