AT the current growth rate, Hispanics will be the largest ethnic minority in the United States by the year 2000.
Yet on the whole, Hispanics are greatly misunderstood and suffer from severe socioeconomic problems, according to a study called "State of Hispanic America 1991: An Overview."
Hispanics are often perceived to be recent immigrants, lazy, and unpatriotic. In fact, the study reports, a large majority of Hispanics in the US (excluding Puerto Rico) are native born. And 78.2 percent of Hispanic men are either working or looking for work, the highest labor force participation rate of any ethnic group.
But Hispanics are most often employed in low-paying jobs, are "the most undereducated major segment of the US population," and have less access to health care, according to the report.
"Reducing the economic disparity and the gaps in opportunity between Hispanics and the rest of US society is not simply a moral preference - it is a social and economic imperative," asserts the study, issued yesterday by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Hispanic civil rights organization.
"Over the next decade, the youthful Hispanic population will constitute about one-third of labor force growth," making Hispanics a growing proportion of the taxpayers who will support the aging population.
Hispanic leaders express frustration over the lack of attention to their community's problems by the media and politicians. In this election year, redistricting and voter registration are major issues in the community.
"The good news is Hispanics are concentrated in key electoral states, like Texas and California," says NCLR president Raul Yzaguirre. "The bad news is that the Hispanic population is young and very poor."
The NCLR report, which relies largely on statistics from US government agencies, focuses on five areas:
* Demographics. The Hispanic population grew by 53 percent between 1980 and 1990, a growth rate surpassed only by Asians and Pacific Islanders. The median age of Hispanics in 1991 was 26.2 years, compared with 33.8 for non-Hispanics. The birthrate for Hispanic women in 1990 was 93.2 births per 1,000 women, compared with 67 births per 1,000 American women overall. Hispanics also have lower per capita income than either whites or blacks.
* Education. Only about half of Hispanic adults (51.3 percent as of 1991) are high school graduates, compared with 80.5 percent of non-Hispanics. Fewer than 10 percent are college graduates. Yet Hispanics are under-represented in programs for disadvantaged children, such as Head Start. This undereducation is a result of the population's heavy concentration in cities, which have limited tax bases, among other problems.
* Poverty. One in four Hispanic families is poor.
* Health. Compared with other Americans, Hispanics are more likely to contract certain diseases, because they receive less preventive care and have less access to health education.
* Civil Rights. Hispanics are less likely than other groups considered "protected classes" under federal law, to file discrimination complaints. And, the study alleges, federal enforcement bodies have given "limited attention to assuring that Hispanic Americans know their rights."