In one of the nation’s richest states, many of the more than 800,000 Latinos in Massachusetts are struggling to deal with threats of social and economic hardship and unequal educational opportunities heightened over the past two years.
They’re often facing greater economic challenges here than other Latinos nationally, according to ¡Avancemos Ya!, a new report from The Boston Foundation’s research center Boston Indicators, UMass Boston’s Mauricio Gastón Institute and the Latino Equity Fund. Researchers aimed to deeply understand the historical context to develop effective solutions to inequities now, finding that the demographic was hit hard overall during the pandemic and that there are substantial gaps in the financial status and educational attainment among Latinos of different origins.
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“We actually have a uniquely diverse Latino population with origins that differ quite significantly from those of the U.S. Latino population,” said Trevor Mattos, senior research manager at Boston Indicators and co-author of the report.
About 327,000 Puerto Ricans and 150,000 Dominicans make up the largest share of the Bay State’s Latino community at 40 and 19 percent, respectively. Mexicans make up just 6 percent of the state’s population, a significant variation from the national average in the United States, where more than 60 percent of Latinos have Mexican roots.
The report heavily relies on data from the U.S. Census bureau, and for the sake of consistency across datasets, didn’t include Brazilians under the definition of “Latino.”
Large-scale migration from Puerto Rico to the Northeast started from the 1940s to 1960s, a period of post-war destabilization in the Caribbean. Many established themselves in Springfield and Holyoke due to the need for agricultural workers. More Puerto Ricans arrived in the Bay State after the economic havoc caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Many of the report’s data points show Puerto Ricans have the highest poverty levels among Latinos, despite sometimes being in Massachusetts for generations and not needing to deal with work authorization like many immigrants.
“This is why we need to pay attention to the over 20 different ethnic groups that we put under this umbrella term [Latino],” said Dr. Lorna Rivera, director at the institute, who oversaw the report’s research and is also Puerto Rican.
“Why do they continue to have the highest poverty levels, the highest unemployment, the lowest educational attainment?” Rivera continued. “Even when compared to recently arrived immigrants like from South or Central America?” She believes access to quality education might be a root cause of that.
Many Central Americans from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — together 17 percent of the state’s Latino population — resettled in Massachusetts through asylum or with temporary protected status from the federal government. Like many undocumented immigrants, they often face issues with access to work authorization and work low-paying jobs while living in gateway cities like Lynn and Everett.
“It’s occupational segregation, in domestic work, maintenance, and construction,” Rivera said. “These are often jobs that are low paying, so we can see why there’s persistent poverty amount the Latino population.”
As manufacturing jobs ended in many of those cities in the 1980s, Latinos generally weren’t able to transition to higher-paying jobs due to having lower levels of education, Most haven’t been able to move into tech-savvy hubs like Boston, either, where only 17 percent of Latinos reside.
The education gap for Latinos persists today. An examiniation of K-12 academic performance found Latino students in Massachusetts scored lower than Latino students in many states.
Latino eighth graders in Massachusetts ranked 21st in math and 28th in reading out of 48 states that reported outcomes. For low-income Latino students, those rankings worsen. Report authors say that districts with large Latino student populations are among those struggling the most in the state, and three with majority-Latino student populations going into receivership in Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge.
One in four Massachusetts Latinos lives in poverty, higher than the 6 percent of whites in Massachusetts. The statewide median household income was over $81,000 in 2019, according to report authors. But in Holyoke, Latinos’ median household income was $22,700.
“That's just one example of the type of disparity that emerged again and again. Massachusetts Latinos had a higher food insecurity rate than U.S. Latinos, as well as when compared to other racial and ethnic groups in our state,” Mattos said.
Putting a roof over their heads is a struggle for many families with the state’s high housing costs.
At 27 percent, Latino households in Massachusetts have a homeownership rate that is lower than Latinos nationally — 44 percent — and other racial groups locally. More than half of the Latinos who rent are considered “burdened” by their housing costs, which means they spend more than a third of their income for the necessity.
Authors call the issues outlined in the report “interrelated.” They point out that low-test scores, poor high-school graduation rates and lower college completion rates, for instance, lead to low-wage, service-oriented jobs.
Such jobs were axed during the pandemic, leaving many Latinos without work. The Latino unemployment rate hit a peak of 28 percent in Massachusetts in the second quarter of 2020, according to the report. An estimated 63 percent of Latinos in Massachusetts lost work income during the first year of the pandemic.
English language proficiency and access to childcare have both presented a significant challenge to Latinos accessing better-paying jobs, especially as the number of childcare providers has decreased during the pandemic.
“At a time when we have an unprecedented labor shortage across multiple industries, tapping into our talented, entrepreneurial and fast-growing Latino communities is crucial to addressing issues like childcare and upskilling pathways to higher opportunity jobs,” said Juan Fernando Lopera, co-chair of the Latino Equity Fund. “The data in this report challenges us to do better. It is up to all of us to seize the opportunity to do so.”
The report offers many solutions, some of which already exist but need more funding. Its recommendations include robust job training programs with ESL classes, improving job quality with paid leave policies and expanding transit and economic development in gateway cities, like reducing fare for low-income workers in Lawrence or Lynn.
Rivera also thinks improving license reciprocity issues — getting a professional license and skills properly accredited here after a resident has already gotten licensed in another country— needs to take center stage.
“What you find is even that the highly educated and highly skilled Latino immigrants have to take these other lower paying jobs that are really beneath them in the sense of what their assets are,” she said.