Latino youth survey: Satisfied with lives in US, but lagging peers

Most Latino youths in the US are 'mostly' or 'very' satisfied with their lives, reports a new survey by Pew Hispanic Center. But teen pregnancy rates are high, and Latinos trail their counterparts on other important measures, such as education and skill levels.

As the US braces for another attempt at immigration reform next year, the demographic reality that 1 in 4 newborns today is Hispanic and that Hispanic youths remain less skilled and more prone to dropping out of high school than their nonLatino peers will no doubt influence the debate – and be cited by those on both sides of the issue.

Some analysts say the birthrate numbers – a percentage achieved by no other minority group in American history – point inexorably toward rising influence of Hispanics in political and cultural life.

“Latinos will dramatically increase their importance in elections, which is not a political or organizational analysis so much as a demographic fact,” said Paul Taylor, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, which released a national survey of Latino youths on Friday.

This year marks the first time that a plurality (37 percent) of Latinos in the 16 to 25 age group are US-born children of immigrant parents, according to the report, “Between Two Worlds: How Latino Youths Come of Age in America.” An additional 29 percent are third-generation Hispanic-Americans or higher. Thirty-four percent are themselves immigrants; 14 years ago, nearly half of all Latinos in this age group were immigrants.

Those figures should serve as a wake-up call to the business world, some argue.

“Marketing professionals around the country will be shocked to see the amount of Hispanic youth in New Mexico, California, Texas, Nevada, Florida, and Colorado,” says Jennifer Elena, vice president of Crosby-Volmer International Communications, a nationwide public relations company. “Corporate America should recognize the significance of capturing this audience.”

Noting that 51 percent of all youths living in New Mexico are Hispanic, she asks: “Is corporate America spending 50 percent of their [youth-marketing] dollars on tailoring messages to the youth of New Mexico?”

The report examined attitudes of youths ages 16 to 25 toward identity, teen parenthood, family, children, life priorities, educational and career aspirations, and gangs. It shows that Hispanics are more likely than other youths to drop out of school, live in poverty, and become teen parents, despite a high value on education, hard work, and career success.

One finding – that young Hispanic women have the highest rates of teen parenthood of any major racial or ethnic group – indicates that pregnancy-prevention campaigns have not resonated among Hispanic youths, says Ms. Elena. “What is Trojan doing to educate Latino men? Awareness campaigns are more than billboards and PSAs. Until awareness campaigns are developed to understand that Hispanics are dealing with specific economic, religious, and language barriers, then nothing will change,” she says.

Of major interest to the report's authors and analysts are findings about the terms younger Hispanics use to describe themselves, and thus what countries they most identify with. Fifty two percent say they prefer using their family’s country of origin (e.g., Mexican-American or Guatamalan-American) over the term American (24 percent) or the terms Hispanic or Latino.

“When youth are going through the life cycle of identity, of figuring out who they are, they are going to try to find something that is meaningful to them, and this often comes from what their parents have passed along to them,” says Jesus Huerta, national project coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, who deals firsthand with Hispanics in outreach programs. “These kids often live a dual existence in which they speak and act one way at school and another at home. These youth, whether they are aware of it or not, are constantly having to figure out how to act appropriately in these two paradigms. This study shows that the US needs to accept the complexities of its own shifting identity and welcome it for the benefit of our future.”

Among the report’s other findings are the following:

• More young Hispanics say their parents have often spoken to them of their pride in their family’s country of origin than say their parents have often talked to them of their pride in being American – 42 percent versus 29 percent. More say they have often been encouraged by their parents to speak in Spanish than say they have often been encouraged to speak only in English – 60 percent versus 22 percent.

• Among foreign-born Latinos youths, 48 percent say they can speak English very well or pretty well. Among their US-born counterparts, that figures doubles to 98 percent.

• About 1 in 4 young Hispanic women becomes a mother by age 19, according to the Pew Center’s analysis of census data. This compares with a rate of about 1 in 5 among young black women, 1 in 10 among young white women, and about 1 in 18 among young Asian women.

• About 3 in 10 young Latinos say they have a friend or relative who is a current or former gang member. This degree of familiarity with gangs is much more prevalent among the US-born than among the foreign born – 40 percent versus 17 percent. Young Latinos of Mexican origin are nearly twice as likely as other young Latinos to say that a friend or a relative is a member of a gang – 37 percent versus 19 percent.

• Household income of young Latinos lags behind that of young whites but is slightly ahead that of young blacks. Poverty rates follow the same pattern: Some 23 percent of young Latinos live in poverty, compared with 13 percent of young whites and 28 percent of young blacks. The poverty rate among young Latinos declines significantly from the first generation (29 percent) to the second (19 percent).

• Fifty-two percent of all employed foreign-born youths are in lower-skill occupations compared with 27 percent of US-born Latino youths.

• The high school dropout rate among Latino youths is 17 percent - nearly three times as high as for white youths and nearly double the rate for blacks.

The most compelling trend in the report is the fact that 95 percent of Latino youths say that are "mostly satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their lives in the US, says Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University professor and author of “The Politics of Latino Faith: Religion, Identity and Urban Community."

“Such optimism is a welcome addition to a very complicated experience of youth culture in the US, besieged as American youth are by a multitude of social, emotional, and material pressures,” says Professor Wilson. “Latino youth have taken a unique but unsurprising stance by ranking family and religious values as more important to life satisfaction than financial success.”

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