Here’s How Latinos Could Get the Economic Opportunity They Need

Twenty percent of Latinos are unemployed. We’re all going to be affected if we don’t address this issue, and soon.

By Laura RiceSeptember 23, 2016 9:48 am,

This story is part of the NPR project “A Nation Engaged,” which takes a deeper look at economic opportunity in 21st century America. 

I was on my way to work about a week ago and – like a good Texas Standard employee – I had the radio turned on to NPR. On Morning Edition I heard Steve Inskeep talking to Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre initiative.

“On the issue of minimum wage, which is one that is always used as ‘You don’t care for decent wages,’” he said, “here is a case where you have Latino minorities who are at 20 percent unemployment and you want to double the cost to hire them by doubling the minimum wage. How is that going to help young Latinos?”

Maybe you caught the same interview. Did that statement stick out to you? Twenty percent? What’s going on with young Latinos and is the same thing happening in Texas?

Steve Inskeep’s interview was over, but I wanted to find out more. Luckily for me it turns out the man who made that statement is a Texan. Daniel Garza lives in Mission with his family. The Libre initiative is a group linked with the billionaire Koch brothers dedicated to spreading free market ideology to Latino voters. Ideas like this one:

“Instead of focusing on redistributing somebody else’s earned wealth, we should focus on redistributing knowledge and opportunity,” Garza says. “That means a quality education for everybody and increasing opportunity in the private sector by unleashing the private sector by actually removing the imposition of too much regulation, too much taxes and too much government.”

But of course, Garza’s views aren’t the whole story. Texan Ignacio Salazar has a different perspective. He’s the president and CEO of the non-profit SER National, which means “To be” in Spanish but also is an acronym for Service, Employment, Redevelopment.

Salazar and Garza don’t disagree on everything, they both agree many Latinos in Texas – and across the country – aren’t getting the economic opportunities they need.

“Well, unfortunately, the opportunities are not permeating throughout America right now,” Garza says.

“And unfortunately within Texas, if you’re 17 or younger and you happen to be Hispanic, 34 percent of you are living in poverty,” Salazar says.

They both agree that education and job training are ways to increase achievement. But when we get to actual steps towards those goals – they’re divided. Raising the minimum wage is a perfect example.

“What are the issues that we need to address? One of them is income inequality. And raising the minimum wage is key,” Salazar says. “We know that if income stability is present that chances are greater that an individual will complete a degree or a certification or become skilled in a particular area. So raising that is very important because when you’ve increased income in a family situation, you’ve increased the opportunities they can break out of a cycle of not completing, not getting skills and staying in low incomes jobs so it’s extremely important.”

“The problem that we have here is that when the cost of labor goes up, the demand for labor goes down,” Garza says. “People do not get into work, people are fired from work or they’re part-time because the employer – well, you’ve wiped out the profit margin, haven’t you?”

Garza’s point: You may raise the minimum wage, but that doesn’t mean employers will have more cash on hand to pay their workers. Wages might rise, but fewer workers will enjoy the benefits. But that conclusion is by no means universally accepted.

What we see with these two experts – two Texans both committed to expanding opportunities for young Latinos – may point to a larger underlying issue that’s perhaps bigger than Texas itself: If those in the trenches can’t agree on the best way forward, where do we go from here? It’s not as if finding an answer is optional. As Salazar notes – Latino or not – we’re all going to be affected if we don’t address this issue, and soon.

“When you’re looking at a segment of the population that’s a critical mass, if they’re not buying goods and services, if they’re not purchasing homes, if they’re not buying cars … then the economy suffers as well,” Salazar says. “Half of the population of the state of Texas of children today are Hispanic and they can’t just be at the bottom end, nor can their families be at the bottom end. It’s not good for the economy overall.”