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Hispanics: A Cure for America's Demographic Woes?

America's rapidly growing Hispanic population could provide a demographic and economic boost to the United States - but only if Hispanics are given greater educational opportunities to put them on a path to higher paying jobs. That is the message from a group of academics specializing in Hispanic-American affairs whose collaborative study was unveiled this week in Washington.

Princeton University Sociologist Marta Tienda is chairperson of the Washington-based National Research Council's panel on Hispanics in the United States. She notes that Hispanics, both Latin American immigrants and their U.S. born offspring, already constitute America's largest minority group at 14 percent. By 2030, they are projected to account for nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population.

"For the nation, the youthful Hispanic population represents a potential demographic dividend not available to other industrialized countries that are experiencing population decline," said Marta Tienda. "Hispanics are coming of age in an aging society. As growing numbers of Hispanics replace white retirees in the labor force, they can help attenuate the labor shortage."

Tienda notes that the median age of the Hispanic population is 27, versus 39 percent for non-Hispanic Caucasians. This means that millions of Hispanics will be entering their prime working years as large numbers of Americans are set to retire. For a nation concerned about paying for social programs and services for an increasingly aged population, Tienda argues a vibrant and growing Hispanic community could be just what the United States needs from a demographic and economic standpoint. But, she says, there is a catch:

"Whether social and economic mobility trends will continue, depends on several factors that are very much in flux today," she said. "Most especially, the future mobility trends depend on whether the second generation [of Hispanics] succeeds in closing the formidable education gap. Realizing the Hispanic demographic dividend, to enhance national productivity and global competitiveness, will require significant educational investments today, in order to position Hispanic workers to compete for high-paying jobs in the future."

As a group, Hispanics tend to suffer from low educational attainment and are often relegated to low-skilled, low-wage jobs in the United States. This must change, according to economist Stephen Trejo of the University of Texas at Austin.

"The stakes are higher than ever before because education is a much bigger determinant of people's success or failure than ever before," said Stephen Trejo. "So, the economic reward from education, the financial return from education is higher than it has ever been in our history. In the future that is going to mean a bigger earnings penalty for people who do not finish high school and for people who do not get some college [education]."

Few would argue against the importance of education. But some point out that simply expanding educational opportunities open to Hispanics may not be enough. John Keeley is communications director for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a public policy organization that favors limiting immigration to the United States.

"Most immigrants are not afforded the luxury of further schooling once they arrive in the United States," said John Keeley. "They need to work immediately and provider for their families. And then the children of these immigrants tend to replicate the educational experiences of their parents."

In other words, Keeley argues it is not clear that the children of America's least-educated Hispanic immigrants will immediately seize the higher educational opportunities open to them, and that it may take generations for Hispanic educational attainment levels to match those of the U.S. population as a whole.

If so, then the case for Hispanics as a quick fix for America's aging workforce would seem to be weakened. If anything, Keeley worries that an exploding, under-educated Hispanic population will become a heavy burden.

"To the extent that they do not fundamentally change educational attainment patterns, we are going to succeed in increasing our low-skilled workforce, and that poses, I think, a real doomsday scenario in terms of public expenditures: health care costs, the big budget items for state governments," he said. "You do not want to grow your low-skilled, undereducated population."

The Center for Immigration Studies does not dispute the need to educate America's Hispanic community. But the group does advocate a shift in U.S. immigration policies towards giving priority to immigrants with high educational achievement and who are therefore equipped to secure high-paying jobs upon arrival.

Princeton sociologist Marta Tienda admits that the collective educational achievements of America's Hispanic population are constantly being diluted by an unending stream of new arrivals from Latin America, many of them undocumented. But she insists that the need to boost Hispanics' median educational level remains, and that the United States ignores this need at its own peril.