ALBUQUERQUE — A sharp racial/ethnic divide has emerged within the world of low-income working families, posing a critical equity and economic challenge to New Mexico and the nation, a new study concludes.
Hispanics and African-Americans, who will continue to emerge as a larger segment of the workforce, will remain under-prepared and underpaid unless lawmakers in New Mexico are willing to pursue policies that would improve conditions.
The disturbing portrait of America’s low-income working families was sketched by the Working Poor Families Project based on new analysis of the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Project’s study sheds a fresh light on what’s happening inside the world of the working poor, where adults are working hard but finding it difficult if not impossible to get ahead. And within this world at the bottom of America’s economic spectrum, a stark divide has emerged between white and Asian families compared to black and Hispanic families.
“In 2013, working families headed by racial/ethnic minorities were twice as likely to be poor or low-income compared with non-Hispanic whites, a gap that has increased since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007,” the authors write. “The significant differences among racial/ethnic groups present a critical challenge to ensuring economic growth and bringing opportunities to all workers, families and communities across the United States.”
“As a majority-minority state—60 percent of our adults and 74 percent of our children are racial/ethnic minorities—New Mexico can be considered a bellwether of the nation’s impending demographic changes,” said Veronica C. García, Ed.D., executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children. “Unfortunately, New Mexico is also a high-poverty state. Lawmakers have made some headway in promoting policies to alleviate poverty and in taking a targeted approach to reducing educational disparities among our racial/ethnic minorities. However, the state still must move forward to advance low-income working families by supporting a statewide career pathways framework, providing need-based financial aid for college students, and increasing the rate of minority adults with post-secondary credentials and degrees.”
Hispanic children are particularly at risk because so many of their low-income working families include at least one immigrant parent, the data show. Despite a high work ethic, Hispanic immigrants are among the most disadvantaged with lower earnings, less education, and little health care. Nationally, some 14 million of the 24 million children who live in low-income working families belong to racial or ethnic minorities. This bodes poorly for the nation’s future as children who grow up in low-income families face the very real prospect of never escaping poverty, the study found.
Disparities cannot be erased overnight, but policymakers can start to reduce the gaps with a two-pronged approach that simultaneously increases access to education and training while enacting policies that “make work pay,” the researchers assert. Among the recommendations for state governments are:
- Raising the minimum wage.
- Increasing need-based financial aid for post-secondary education, and expanding child care assistance and other supports for students with children.
- Supporting programs that link education to career opportunities and helping English language learners.
- Encouraging employers to provide paid sick leave for all workers.
The Working Poor Families Project report, “Low-Income Working Families: The Racial/Ethnic Divide,” is available online here.