The Commonwealth’s Hispanics are in trouble.
That’s one stark takeaway from a new analysis released last week. Prepared by the Boston Indicators and the Latino Equity Fund, both out of the Boston Foundation, and the Gastón Institute at UMass Boston, the report shows that the roughly 800,000 Latinos in the state fare worse economically than Latinos do nationally.
Yet the report’s alarming conclusion is not new, nor should it be a revelation to anyone who’s been paying attention to Hispanics in Massachusetts. To me, the relevant questions are: What is the state’s political class doing, or not doing, to improve Latino outcomes? And how can it ensure that these alarming Hispanic data points don’t get ignored any longer?
About those dreadful outcomes: The Latino poverty rate, at 24.2, is nearly 5 percentage points higher than the national Latino rate, more than 6 percentage points higher than the state’s Black poverty rate, and more than three times as high as the state’s white poverty rate. That means that nearly 1 in 4 Latinos in the state live below the federal poverty line, or almost 200,000 residents.
Unemployment rates paint a similarly grim picture. Before the 2020 recession caused by the COVID pandemic, the 2019 Latino unemployment in the state was a bit higher than the national rate. In Massachusetts, Black and Latino workers had the highest unemployment rates, at 7.7 percent and 7.6 percent. And right at the peak of the pandemic, Latinos fared the worst in the workforce: Their unemployment rate reached 28 percent in the second quarter of 2020. Food insecurity among Hispanics in Massachusetts is nearly 8 percentage points higher than it is for Latinos nationally, and more than twice as high as every other racial subgroup in the state.
What are the policy levers to tackle such persistent inequities? While the report mentions a few important recommendations — for instance, an expansion of early college programs and passage of a universal child-care bill pending in the State House — there is more to the story.
“If we don’t change policy, nothing is going to change,” Lorna Rivera, the director of the Gastón Institute, said in an interview about the alarming Latino outcomes. That’s why the Gastón Institute is hiring a Latino policy analyst, partially funded by the Greater Boston Latino Network and Amplify Latinx, she said. That way, “there’s alignment of the community-identified issues and resources and the data so we can have accountability and that the policy-making is based on the research.”
On public education and Latinos, here’s what the research shows: Latino students’ academic scores are lower than their peers in other states. But here’s some valuable context that has been missing from most, if not all, public policy conversations about the dreaded topic of state takeover of school districts: “[D]istricts with large Latino student populations are among those struggling most in Massachusetts. The recent history of public districts that have gone into state receivership, for instance, shows a troubling correlation with the Latino student population share,” the report’s authors write.
The way policies like state receivership are framed matters. So does highlighting the many different identities among Latinos.
“Look at Afrolatinos,” Rivera said. “You see triple oppression there: racial oppression, economic oppression, and linguistic and cultural oppression. . . . And many Black Latinos are English learners.”
It’s why a comprehensive and multidimensional discussion about solutions to improve Latino outcomes is a must. Yet that cannot realistically happen without access to the proverbial bully pulpit. And that takes me to the lack of Latino political representation, a critical gap that ought to be a priority.
A report from the Gastón Institute last year showed that there were only 68 Latinos elected to local and state-level office, with most of them found in local school boards. The Hispanic absence in the Legislature is embarrassing: Six Latino representatives, all male, serve in the 160-member House, but 18 would be proportionate; whereas in the Senate, there are two Latino Senators, where having five would be in proportion.
Latinos and Latinas will be at a disadvantage in Massachusetts until the representation disparity is fixed. They’ll continue to struggle until they have more voices from the community speaking up for them in policy-making positions.