WASHINGTON - Hispanics in the United States increasingly fuel the nation's economic engine, especially as their labor-force participation grows and baby boomers retire. Yet, educational, political, residential, and cultural challenges facing Hispanic children are likely to hamper their future achievements, say contributors toGrowing Up Hispanic: Health and Development of Children of Immigrants. The volume, released by the Urban Institute Press, examines how neighborhood, family, school, and community affect these children's development and well-being.
"The development of these young children is critical for their life chances and for their long-term social and economic integration into U.S. society. Hispanic children in immigrant families are a diverse group that is of growing importance because Hispanics constitute the largest ethnic minority group in the nation and children of immigrant parents are the fastest-growing component of the child population," write volume editors Nancy Landale, Susan McHale, and Alan Booth.
Twenty-three percent of children in this country—or 16.5 million—have immigrant parents. Of the 9.2 million children of immigrants who are Hispanic, 6.9 million children have Mexican parents, according to the Census Bureau.
Thirty-seven sociologists, demographers, psychologists, psychiatrists, social work researchers, mental health researchers, political scientists, and economists contributed research to Growing Up Hispanic that reveals a community struggling in many ways. The average Hispanic child grows up in a neighborhood where nearly 20 percent of neighbors are poor and nearly half are in extreme poverty (incomes below half the poverty level), more than 40 percent do not speak English fluently, and 9 percent of older teens are jobless high-school dropouts.
The book's contributors describe the typical Hispanic family as intact, hardworking, and serious about education. Seventy-five percent of children in Mexican-origin families, for instance, live with two parents, and 96 percent of them have employed fathers. While many Hispanic immigrant parents have limited schooling, their children's education figured centrally in their decision to immigrate.
To improve the outlook for Hispanic children, the book's authors recommend better English-language instruction, school-based health clinics, and culturally sensitive schools. For example, schools might house special parent-involvement programs for adults who speak Spanish, work long hours, or did not finish high school.
Because Latinos tend to settle in deeply impoverished urban settings, their children attend the most segregated schools—a big disadvantage as they strive to learn English, pass tests, graduate from high school, get into college, or attain skills needed in today's economy. Latino children have the lowest preschool attendance rates, the highest high-school dropout rates, and the lowest college attendance rates among all racial and ethnic groups. Often, their parents lack the cultural integration and social networks useful in navigating the American education system, especially in plotting a course to college.
Language and cultural barriers and fear of stigma often lead many Hispanics to underuse mental health services for their children, a critical issue since unmet mental health needs often undermine academic performance. One answer, the book posits, is to offer these services through schools and build relationships with parents so problems can be identified early.
Certainly the most sensitive policy issue surrounding Hispanic children is citizenship, particularly their parents'. While 3.1 million children of immigrants are U.S. citizens (88 percent of all children of immigrants), excluding their undocumented immigrant parents from assistance programs indirectly deprives the citizen children of important public benefits, say the book's authors. The 1.8 million undocumented children are also not eligible for most types of federal assistance.
At the same time, social services and other programs for immigrants are a political lightning rod. The concluding chapter acknowledges this highly charged environment, but calls for separating immigration policy from social policy for needy immigrant children: "Children of the unauthorized are here to stay, and the current 'sink-or-swim' immigration policy that ignores the challenges children and families face is both fiscally and socially costly. By not providing a means for mobility for this population, we are creating a permanent underclass of low-educated and low-skilled labor that may ultimately have negative effects for all Americans."
Growing Up Hispanic: Health and Development of Children of Immigrants, edited by Nancy Landale, Susan McHale, and Alan Booth, is available from the Urban Institute Press (paper, 6"x9", 368 pages, ISBN 978-0-87766-763-6, $32.50). Order online at http://www.uipress.org, call 410-516-6956, or dial 1-800-537-5487 toll free. Read more, including the introductory chapter, at http://www.urban.org/books/growinguphispanic/index.cfm.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens' understanding of the issues and trade-offs that policymakers face.