Behind at the Starting Line
Hispanics are driving U.S. population growth. Representing just 16 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, Hispanics accounted for the majority of U.S. population growth over the past decade. The current emphasis on immigration in public discourse and policy reflects the commonplace assumption that Hispanic population growth is driven largely by new immigration. Yet, most Hispanic growth today is due to Hispanic births, not immigration.1 Fertility represents a large second-order effect of past and current immigration. The often unappreciated impact of U.S.-born Hispanic infants on population growth raises an important policy question: Do Hispanic infants start life’s race behind the starting line, poor and disadvantaged?
The question of whether Hispanic infants start life at an economic disadvantage has broad policy implications. Poverty at birth threatens childhood development trajectories, later academic achievement, transitions to productive adult roles, and, ultimately, incorporation into the economic, social, and political mainstream.2 Nor is this just a highly localized concern in a few traditional Hispanic settlement areas, because Hispanics are now widely distributed geographically. America’s Hispanic population has dispersed from established gateways in the Southwest and a few large urban cores to new destinations throughout the Southeast, the Pacific Northwest, and the agricultural heartland.3 Most Hispanics continue to reside in metropolitan areas, where they accounted for nearly 55 percent of recent population gains. Yet, Hispanic growth has had even greater impacts in rural America. A burgeoning Hispanic population accounted for two-thirds of the rural population gain, though Hispanics represented less than 7 percent of the population in 2010. In many rural areas, Hispanics provide a demographic lifeline to dying small towns.
Births account for a growing share of the Hispanic population increase: nearly 25 percent of all U.S. births are now to Hispanics. Our focus here is on the question of how many Hispanic infants begin their lives in poverty. In our previous research, we demonstrated that the growing proportion of U.S. births that are Hispanic is causing America to become more diverse from youngest to oldest.4 Diversity as well as economic incorporation are occurring from the “bottom up”—beginning with infants and children. Here we examine the comparative economic circumstances of Hispanics but, unlike previous studies, we place the emphasis squarely on infants. The period in utero and during early infancy is especially critical for brain development and later cognitive, emotional, and physical outcomes. Poor infants also face clear developmental disadvantages that persist into adulthood.5 In the absence of upward socioeconomic mobility, childhood poverty contributes to poverty in adulthood, a statistical fact that will take on special significance if intergenerational mobility declines and inequality grows.6