In an Unequal Country, Latinos Occupy the Bottom Rung

 Investing in Children Can Ensure a More Prosperous Future

 By Leticia Miranda, Senior Policy Advisor, Economic Security Policy, NCLR

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier this month, President Obama called income inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”  Indeed, the reality of America is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, challenging the very premise of the American Dream, that anybody who works hard enough in this country can move up the economic ladder.  Unfortunately, Latinos are at the bottom rung.

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The U.S. Census Bureau recently released data using the new Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), revealing that there are more poor Americans overall, and that Hispanics have the highest rate of poverty in this country among every racial and ethnic group, at nearly 28 percent.  The SPM counted almost 15 million Latinos as poor in 2012, about one million more than were counted using the official measure of poverty.  The official measure of poverty, which is still in use, counts pre-tax cash income and makes no other adjustments.  Unlike the official measure, the SPM accounts for the impact of critical noncash antipoverty programs such as food assistance and subsidized housing, the value of refundable tax credits, and the differences in costs of living by region and housing type.  It also adjusts for expenses such as out-of-pocket medical charges, payroll taxes, and child care costs. 

While the overall numbers were disheartening, the news isn’t all bad.  In fact, the SPM actually shows that the government’s antipoverty programs are working, especially for children.  Thanks to benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other antipoverty programs, three million fewer children were counted as poor with the SPM.

Recent groundbreaking research has confirmed that programs that combat poverty—such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP—have long-term benefits to children as they grow into adult workers.  For example, children of EITC recipients do better in school, are likelier to attend college, and earn more as adults, all key elements of a competitive workforce.  Conversely, adult workers who experienced hunger and poverty in childhood endure lasting damage to their development that reduces their performance as students and workers.

As our nation continues to wrangle over budget priorities, our leaders must understand the importance of investing in programs that help families and children rise out of poverty.  One of the best ways to combat poverty and inequality over the long term is to invest in preschool education, such as through our nation’s Head Start program, which serves one million children from poor families, one-third of whom are Latino.  In 2013, however, our lawmakers allowed sequestration to cut 57,000 preschool kids from Head Start, and Head Start is just one of many programs that absorbed deep cuts due to sequestration.  Though lawmakers just reached a bipartisan agreement to stop most of the painful sequestration cuts for the next two years, our nation must invest more robustly in our children and our nation’s future.  It remains shameful that we choose to protect tax deductions for corporations instead of programs that are proven to help children climb out of poverty.

Our nation’s budget should reflect our priorities.  Latino voters believe we should be investing in children, our nation’s future workers, taxpayers, and voters and creating jobs that will grow our economy.   Right now, the American Dream is out of reach for far too many Americans.  It’s time to invest in more ladders of opportunity instead of dismantling the ones we have.

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