The headlines have been heartening lately for Latinos in Austin and across the country, at least when it comes to narrowing the income and education gaps that have dogged the nation’s largest minority group for years.
Recently, we learned that Latinos in the Austin-Round Rock metro area saw a hefty 17 percent increase in median household income from 2015 to 2016 — rising from $48,160 to $56,306, according to new census data.
Encouraging, yes, but it’s not time to get carried away just yet. It’s true that household incomes rose for Austin-area Latinos, but they still trail whites by a large margin.
Still, closing the income gap offers hope for anyone who believes in the old cliché that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for some time now in Austin, Latinos and African Americans have lagged behind whites in terms of quality of life barometers like income and educational attainment.
Attempts to close gaps led the city to launch Hispanic Quality of Life and African American Quality of Life initiatives, which I covered many years ago. The reviews were mixed. Some minority residents said they didn’t accomplish nearly enough. Some Austinites said the city should help all residents, not just certain minority groups. Regardless where you stood, many of the issues the initiatives sought to address back then are still around.
But back to the good news. Another reason to be encouraged is that there’s plenty of demographic evidence around to believe that if the Austin region will continue to prosper, the future will depend to a large part on the young and fast-growing Hispanic population.
In Travis County alone, 47 percent of the child population is Hispanic, researchers with the Community Advancement Network (CAN) found.
“When I speak to groups, I tell them, ‘That’s our future right there. That’s what the community is going to look like in 20 or 30 years,’” Raul Alvarez, who heads (CAN), told me.
Latinos already make up about 32 percent of the roughly 2 million overall population in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, according to 2016 census data. That’s no secret. What many people don’t know, however, is that demographic experts expect that the Latino population will become the largest portion of the Central Texas workforce sometime in about the next 15 years.
Such projections, however, increasingly lead to worries that Latinos will be left behind because as skill requirements for some careers rise, comparative lack of education could leave a growing share of the local Latino workforce stuck in low-wage jobs.
But there’s good news on that front, too. According to experts, one of the logical explanations behind the Latino income increase is that Latinos are reaching higher education levels.
The percentage of Texas Latinos ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased between 2015 and 2016, the American-Statesman reported recently.
A new report by the Pew Research Center also found that among Hispanics nationwide, the high school dropout rate is at a new low – 10 percent, continuing a decline spanning several decades. Moreover, as the Hispanic dropout rate plummeted, the share of Hispanic high school graduates who enter college rose, Pew reported.
While encouraging, the new income and education benchmarks aren’t all rosy, and pronounced disparities between minorities and whites persist.
Those figures showing the U.S. Hispanic high school dropout rate is at a new low of 10 percent? They don’t tell the full story: the Hispanic dropout rate was higher than for any other racial and ethnic group.
And though Austin Hispanics may have closed the gaps when it comes to income, they still lag far behind whites, whose median household income in 2016 was close to $74,000 – 31 percent higher than that of Latinos ($56,306) and 48 percent higher than that of African Americans (49,871).
And when income is measured another way – per capita –Hispanics in Central Texas make less than half of what Anglos on average make per year, according to the Austin Community Foundation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that though Hispanics comprise only about a third of the overall Travis County population, they make up 55 percent of all Travis residents living in poverty, according to CAN, which keeps an annual Dashboard on its website that measures socioeconomic indicators.
It’s even worse for children. CAN researchers found that Hispanic children, although comprising 47 percent of the child population, make up 74 percent of all Travis County children living in poverty.
For Alvarez, that figure may be more troubling than anything else.
“That’s important because it says Hispanics are overrepresented in terms of family and poverty, and they’re going to face challenges that other populations are not going to face,” Alvarez told me.
In other words, there’s good news for area Latinos, but there’s much work to be done.