Social and Economic Well-Being and the Future for Latinos in the United States

Population Bulletin Update: Latinos in the United States 2010 (Part 2 of 2)

This Population Bulletin Update is a follow-up to 1997’s Population Bulletin, “Generations of Diversity: Latinos in the United States,” and provides new data and analysis on the U.S. Latino population and its diversity, socioeconomic status, and issues of identity.

(December 2010) U.S.-born Latinos and foreign-born Latinos face widely different social and economic experiences in the United States. For example, the language that one speaks varies greatly on the basis of nativity status across Latino ethnic groups. Nearly half of all Latinos are bilingual (speaking Spanish at home and speaking English well or very well); 31 percent are monolingual Spanish speakers (speaking Spanish at home and speaking English not well or not at all); and 21 percent are monolingual English speakers (speaking English at home).

However, there are major differences in spoken language across Latino groups that are related to general socioeconomic standing. First, foreign-born individuals are more likely to speak only Spanish compared with their native-born counterparts. Over 40 percent of foreign-born persons speak only Spanish among Mexicans (52 percent), Central Americans (48 percent), Dominicans (45 percent), and Cubans (43 percent). Second, U.S.-born Latinos are more likely to be monolingual English speakers than foreign-born Latinos. Finally, for almost all of the subgroups, regardless of nativity status, the largest segment of the population are bilingual speakers—the exception being foreign-born Mexicans and Central Americans in which the largest part speak only Spanish and among native-born “Other Latinos” in which the largest segment are monolingual Spanish speakers.

Foreign-born Latinos lag behind their respective native-born counterparts in high school graduation rates, occupational socioeconomic index, median family income, and possession of health insurance. Second, in general, foreign-born individuals have lower rates of joblessness compared with their native-born counterparts. Third, nativity status generally does not affect poverty. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Central Americans have particularly high rates of impoverishment regardless of whether or not they were born in the United States.

Furthermore, ethnic groups tend to cluster around certain socioeconomic characteristics. The top socioeconomic group includes South Americans, Cubans, and other Latinos. The bottom socioeconomic group includes Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Dominicans, with Central Americans falling in the middle. In fact, foreign-born South Americans, Cubans, and other Latinos generally fare better along various socioeconomic dimensions compared with native-born Mexicans and Dominicans and mainland-born Puerto Ricans.

Overall, whites fare better across all socioeconomic indicators. However, native-born Cubans and South Americans have slightly higher levels of high school completion and median family income compared with whites. Still, the large majority of Latinos, especially in the case of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, lag significantly behind whites on all socioeconomic dimensions. These deficits have major implications for the socioeconomic viability of Latinos in the coming decades.

Latinos have the lowest level of health insurance coverage in the United States.1 In 2009 close to one-third (31 percent) of Latinos lacked health insurance. Across ethnic groups, foreign-born individuals are much more likely to lack insurance compared with their native-born counterparts. More than half of foreign-born Mexicans (57 percent) and Central Americans (55 percent) lack health insurance. Yet even among some native-born groups, approximately one-fifth do not have any form of insurance. Of course, the lack of health insurance is due to a variety of factors including the type of job that one holds; low-paying jobs generally have no insurance benefits or, at best, limited coverage. Whites have noticeably lower levels of noncoverage compared with all Latino groups.

Despite the low socioeconomic standing of Latino immigrants and their lack of health insurance, they have low levels of mortality and tend to live long, particularly in the case of Mexican immigrants.2 This pattern is commonly referred to as the “epidemiological paradox” or the “Mexican immigrant paradox.” Various explanations have been put forth to account for the paradox, including migrant selectivity from the home country, a protective immigrant culture or lifestyle, and methodological and data limitations.

The current economic recession has had sweeping effects on the social and economic standing of all groups. Between 2000 and 2009, whites and Latinos experienced increases of about 4 percentage points in their unemployment rates. Among all Latinos, the unemployment rates of the native-born rose more than those of foreign-born Latinos, with unemployment rates of native-born Central Americans, South Americans, and Cubans rising the most.

After adjusting for inflation between 1999 and 2008, the median family income of Latinos declined somewhat faster than that of whites (-7.1 percent vs. -5.9 percent, respectively). Median family incomes of foreign-born Latinos declined more than native-born Latinos, with income declines greatest among foreign-born Cubans (-19 percent), Mexicans (-13 percent), Puerto Ricans (-10 percent), Central Americans (-10 percent), and Dominicans (-9 percent). In contrast, the median income of several groups rose somewhat, with the greatest gains posted by native-born Dominicans (11 percent) and foreign-born “Other” Latinos (8 percent).

Latinos and the Future of the U.S.

Over the last few decades, U.S. population growth has been fueled by a youthful Latino population. Today, half of all people added to the U.S. population in a given year are Latino, and this share will increase in the coming decades. As of the start of 2011, the United States will see a major aging of its population as the first cohort of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) reaches retirement age. As is already the case in states such as Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, the opposite ends of the national age spectrum will feature a predominantly white elderly population and an increasingly Latino youth population.

America’s demographic script is set and will result in a nation made up increasingly of Latinos. Population projections suggest that the Latino population will nearly triple from an estimate of 49.7 million in 2010 to 132.8 million in 2050.3 It is expected that about two-thirds of the U.S. projected population growth during this 40-year period will be due to the growth in the Latino population. By 2050, Latinos could represent three of every 10 persons in the United States.

Latinos will increasingly be part of all societal institutions as both consumers and purveyors of services. Latinos need to be viewed as an asset that provides major benefits for the economy rather than as a liability that drains the economy. Given that Latinos continue to have the lowest levels of education across racial and ethnic groups, it is crucial that investments be made in the schooling of these youth to ensure that they are adequately prepared to contribute to the economy in an increasingly technological and global workforce. The future of the United States will increasingly be tied to the fortunes of its Latino population.


Previous page: The Dynamics of Latino Population Growth

Rogelio Saenz is professor of sociology at Texas A&M University.


  1. Carmen DeNavas, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009,” Current Population Reports P60-238 (2010).
  2. Elizabeth Arias, “U.S. Life Tables by Hispanic Origin,”Vital and Health Statistics, series 2, no. 152 (2010); and Alberto Palloni and Elizabeth Arias, “Paradox Lost: Explaining the Hispanic Adult Mortality Advantage,” Demography 41, no. 3 (2004): 385-415.
  3. U.S. Census Bureau, Projections of the Population by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 2010 to 2050, National Population Projections Released 2008 (Based on Census 2000), accessed at, on Nov. 28, 2010.