José Díaz-Balart, chief political analyst for Telemundo, had one important task during the September 7, 2011, Republican debate—to ask the candidates about immigration. Díaz-Balart asked his question, got his answer and was dismissed from the stage. The stereotype was fulfilled; a Latino asked one question and the one question was about immigration. With that box checked, the moderators and candidates were able to return to “non-Latino” issues.
The problem is, the issues that keep Latinos up at night—like double-digit unemployment rates, living at the poverty end of the wealth gap and having the highest high school dropout rates in the country—go well beyond immigration. Herein lies the challenge for President Obama. He must recast his connection with Latino voters beyond a narrow focus on immigration and engage Latinos as the multi-issue electorate they are.
It’s easy to see why Latinos have been typecast within the narrow frame of immigration. The vast majority are immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants. In 2008 then-candidate Barack Obama used the issue to connect with Latinos by highlighting the importance of immigration reform. This strategy was wildly successful and netted him close to 70 percent of the Latino vote. Today that strategy is counterproductive. Latino voters are keenly aware that “La Promesa de Obama”—as his campaign pledge for comprehensive immigration reform became known—was not fulfilled. And now they have other priorities: according to the latest impreMedia-Latino Decisions tracking polls, economics have eclipsed immigration as their top concern. For Latinos, the economy and the related issue of education have come to demand the same level of attention that President Obama once gave immigration.
Since 2009 minority unemployment has been in the double digits. At its height in 2010, Latino unemployment was at 13.9 percent; today it’s 11 percent. Latinos have been the hardest hit in the recession, and they have the steepest climb to recovery. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latino median wealth plummeted 66 percent between 2005 and 2009. The decrease in wealth nationally was the most acute among Latinos, leaving one-third of the community either with debt or no assets.
Latinos are losing not only their jobs, benefits and homes but their hard-earned position in the middle class. Within one generation families have gone from working class to middle class and back to working class again. The wealth gap between minorities and nonminorities is the largest since the Census Bureau began providing this information in 1984. The white-to-Latino ratio of median wealth in 2009 stood at 18 to 1, more than twice the ratio before the recession. The gap between rich and poor has also become a serious problem within the Latino community, with their wealth disparity the greatest of any group.
In addition to having experienced the steepest decrease in wealth, Latinos have the highest birthrates and the lowest levels of education. Latino dropout rates are triple those of whites and double those of African-Americans. Education is particularly important to Latinos because more than one-third are under 18. In 2008–09, in the two largest public school districts, New York City and Los Angeles, Latino children made up 41 percent and 74 percent, respectively, of incoming first graders.