Latinos had income gains, but not all the news is rosy

Bladimira Martinez takes notes while her daughter and business associate, Yessenia Ramirez, conducts business in Pflugerville last month. Martinez recently started her own cleaning company after years of working for others at or near minimum wage. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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.

RELATED: Why Austin-area Latinos saw a big boost in household incomes

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.

RELATED: The promise and the challenge of the Latino job puzzle

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.

CASTILLO: A new giving network answers why Latinos need a hand

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.

 

Abbott’s Texas stomps Austin, local governments

Governor Greg Abbott speaks before signing his new book ‘Broken but Unbowed’ as he launches his book tour at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Welcome to Gov. Abbott’s Texas, where the state bullies local governments to bend to its will and strangles efforts of local people to govern themselves. That sounds surreal, but it is not a stretch if Abbott gets his way.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that Abbott is proposing a “rifle-shot” law to pre-empt regulations of cities and counties that run counter to the state’s interest. Such an approach would wreck the current democratic process in which the Legislature publicly debates local ordinances before either validating them or striking them down.

Here is what Abbott told the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank, during a Q&A session at the group’s meeting in Corpus Christi.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations, is a superior approach,” The Tribune reported.

Abbott added that such an approach, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”

Yes, Governor, democracy is messy, tedious and time-consuming. But that is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind in setting up a system to ensure that ideas are debated in the public square in front of the people so presumably the best ones would prevail.

A sweeping law aimed at diluting or eroding that process is antithetical to the Constitution.

Our democratic system was not intended to be “elegant,” or means of granting “notice to businesses and individuals” so as to provide certainty in their practices or lives, as the governor seems to believe. And the notion that elected lawmakers need some kind of break in doing the jobs we elected and pay them to do – pass laws – is misguided.

Aside from being imprudent, Abbott’s proposal is unnecessary as the limits of municipalities, such as the city of Austin, and all 254 Texas counties, are spelled out in the state’s constitution and legal principles, as Austin attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, notes.

“The Texas Constitution and statutes establish different legal principles regarding power of cities and counties,” Aleshire told me Wednesday.

“The principle for home-rule cities is that they have any power necessary for protection for the health, welfare, or safety of the city residents that is not prohibited by state law. The opposite is true for counties, which only have power that is granted to them by state law.”

In other words, home-rule cities, such as Austin, can legally ban plastic bags, require Uber and Lyft to fingerprint their drivers and regulate short-term rentals as those are areas in which the state has not established regulations, with the exception of some restrictions on plastic bag bans. So none of Austin’s local ordinances in such areas violate state regulations.

And if the state does extend its reach in those areas as some Republicans in the Legislature now are attempting to do, Austin’s ordinances would have to come into compliance with state law. The city could, however, decide to challenge state law in court. In either scenario, the current democratic system works in handling such issues.

As for Travis County, no doubt Abbott is madder than hell over new policies of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez to deny most requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain jail inmates for federal immigration checks before releasing them.

I say that because counties have so little authority in general and already are limited to doing what the state prescribes. So Abbott’s proposal with regard to counties makes no sense. That is especially true since state lawmakers now are considering a law to require Texas sheriffs to fully comply with all ICE detainers or fine them civilly or criminally if they don’t.

As it now stands, Hernandez is only honoring ICE requests when the inmate is charged with one of four crimes: capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling.

Again, our current legislative process – including debate and public meetings – is handling the local initiative that has Abbott all riled up. Austin and Travis County leaders might not agree with the Legislature’s response to Hernandez’s ICE policy, but even Hernandez has said she would follow state law under such circumstances, meaning she would honor ICE detainers if that is the law.

As a former state supreme court justice and attorney general for Texas, Abbott should know that upheaval, disruption and disagreement are part of the formula for a healthy democracy. And can you even imagine the reaction of Abbott, who worships at the altar of states’ rights, if the federal government struck that posture with Texas?

And let’s face it, some of the most autocratic countries in the world are the ones with the most certainty and predictability for their people, government and businesses. Like North Korea.

Central Texans still need to decide who their candidates will be in several races

(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Have you noticed those “Vote Here” signs hanging outside a public library, grocery stores or public schools? No, they aren’t simply leftovers from the Uber/Lyft ordinance election that took place earlier this month. They’re evidence that the job of an involved voter is never done.

Those signs are there to remind us that Tuesday’s Runoff Election Day will determine several Republican and Democrat nominees for state and county offices. Those signs are there to remind you that your voice needs to be heard.

Yes, most of Austin is either chattering about the failed Proposition 1 Transportation Network Company ordinance — like most of the tech world, for that matter — or talking of the upcoming presidential election. It’s easy to understand how Tuesday’s runoff election may have slipped some minds.

Never the less, it is important for voters to show up to the polls. After all, there’s still plenty of business to take care of locally – and it’s this business that most directly affects the lives of Texans. Because a larger than usual number of incumbent officeholders locally have chosen not to run for re-election, the there will be plenty of new faces.

The good news is the ballot is short since only a few items from the March primaries went unresolved, including a very tight primary race for Texas Rail Road Commissioner for both parties, the Democratic race for Travis County Commissioner Precinct 1 and the Republican race for Williamson County Commissioner Precinct 1.

Today, the surviving candidates in each of those races face off in their party’s runoff. And there is plenty to consider.

In the Railroad Commissioner race, for instance, Texans have the opportunity to elect a moderate candidate. Back in March, seven Republicans and three Democrats ran for an open seat on the three-member Commission. Now, it’s down to the final four: Two in each race. While the Editorial Board has endorsed Gary Gates, one of the two Republicans left standing. The board chose not to endorse either of the Democrats left in the race.

Why, you ask, does the Railroad Commission even matter? Simple. The incorrectly named agency regulates the oil and gas industry, and as such the decisions made here determine the state’s energy and environmental future. That’s a huge responsibility. And yet, the agency is not one with controversies including growing criticism for its close ties to the oil and gas industry.

A progressive candidate, some experts say, would be a welcome change.

Even closer to home are the Travis County Commissioner Pct. 1 and Williamson County Pct. 1 races. The candidates in each position will help shape how their respective county handles transportation, health care, criminal justice and other challenges wrought by explosive population growth in those areas. Experience will go far in these seats.

Earlier this month, the editorial board made the following endorsements in those races:

  • Democrat Jeff Travillion for Travis County Commissioner Precinct 1.
  • Republican Landy Warren for Williamson County Commissioner Precinct 1.

Victories in these races will be determined by those who take the time to vote.

A USA Today poll from 2012 showed that 59 percent of nonvoters said they were frustrated because “nothing ever gets done” in government, while 54 percent cited “corruption” and 42 percent pointed to the lack of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties as their reasons for not voting. That same year, voter turnout was lower than in 2008, dropping from 62.3 percent of eligible citizens voting to 57.5 percent in 2012.

Today, voter confidence only deteriorated. Only 2 percent of Americans said they were “very satisfied” with the way things are going in the country, while 71 percent of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the state of the nation, according to a 2015 Quinnipiac poll.

With so much change in leadership coming to Central Texas, this is not the time to be disgruntled and removed from the polls.  People say they don’t vote because they feel elected officials don’t serve their interests. But elected officials can only reflect the interests of those constituents who actually show up to vote.

The solution is simple. If you want change, make yourself heard at the polls.

Yes, eligible and soon-to-be-eligible voters are already looking forward to November’s big show, but pressing matters in our own back yard need your attention.   Don’t miss your opportunity to have your voice heard. Go vote.

Support by Texas county judges for DAPA, DACA should be echoed

USE THIS PHOTO AS LEDE ON A1 WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 18: Pro-immigration protesters rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, March 18, 2016 in Washington, DC. Next month the high court will hear arguments in U.S. v Texas, a case that will decide whether to grant deferred action status to certain undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since 2010 and have children who are American citizens. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Pro-immigration protesters rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, March 18, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On Monday, as President Barack Obama approaches the end of his second term, Supreme Court justices heard another round of  United States v. Texas, a case that began after Obama issued executive orders in 2014 that would allow millions of undocumented workers to avoid deportation.

The president’s efforts would provide a modicum of immigration reform by protecting from deportation as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants.  Local government and business leaders across the country support the questioned immigration programs — Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which targets the nearly 4.3 million undocumented parents of citizens and lawful residents, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an initiative aimed at non-citizens who came to the country as children. Among those who back the programs are county judges from Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio, who recently released a joint statement of support.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court isn’t where this matter will and should be settled.

Immigration policy is the responsibility of  Congress, even if it refuses to accept that responsibility. Then, there’s the matter, as was pointed out by the Editorial Board earlier this week, of a court ruling acting only as a temporary band-aid.

“A decision in June would arrive a few weeks before Republicans and Democrats hold their nominating conventions in mid- and late July. A 4-4 tie — a possibility after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February — would let stand the lower court rulings and would block Obama’s programs from taking effect.

Even a favorable ruling may not matter much, not with Obama’s time in office winding down. His policy will live or die with the next president.”

It’s an absolute shame. While our nation’s leaders squabble over legal and technical points, millions of families who have made this country home will continue to be threatened of being separated by deportation.

The ideal scenario would be to have the Obama Administration work with Congress for progressive reform that benefits the millions of immigrants who are already positively contributing to this country. That, unfortunately, is not likely to happen anytime soon.

What’s needed is aside from political courage from Congress is unwavering support and pressure from leaders across the country; much like the support several county judges expressed in a joint statement earlier this week.

The following is the statement:

Austin, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio Say “Yes” to DAPA and DACA

As the County Judges of Bexar, Dallas, El Paso and Travis Counties, we represent 6.5 million Texans.  The County Judge is the highest elected county official in Texas, and we are responsible for the health, public safety, economic development, and vitality of our respective counties.  We speak with one voice when we all say that the President’s immigration executive action,Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), will benefit our counties’ public safety, economic growth, and humanitarian interests.   A court order has so far blocked DAPA and DACA from being implemented, but on Monday, April 18, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case.

DAPA would provide the parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents with a temporary respite from deportation and permission to work.  Expanded DACA would allow immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to also live and work temporarily in the U.S.  These policies would allow long-term, law-abiding residents to step out of the shadows, live their lives, and contribute to their communities without fear of being separated from their U.S. citizen family members.

Our counties prosper when immigrant residents are integrated into urban life.  Studies estimate that state and local revenues in Texas would increase by $59 million per year with DAPA and expanded DACA. Other research estimates that family income would see a 10% raise when one parent receives DAPA.  Our experience demonstrates that community safety is enhanced when residents are not afraid to seek help from police. DAPA and DACA would empower our residents to cooperate with law enforcement.  DAPA and DACA would also promote stable families and prevent the social, economic, and psychological harm U.S. citizen children face when their parents are deported.

Of course these programs are controversial, but we believe it’s in the best interest of our communities for DAPA and expanded DACA to be implemented until Congress chooses to act.  We hope the Supreme Court will weigh these concerns carefully as it analyzes the President’s immigration action.

Judge Nelson Wolff, Bexar County
Judge Clay Jenkins, Dallas County
Judge Veronica Escobar, El Paso County
Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County