US Latinos are more educated and better off than people realize

Demographers are missing some of the most educated and well-off Latinos.
Demographers are missing some of the most educated and well-off Latinos.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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This post has been corrected.

Ethnicity in the US is notoriously difficult for demographers to classify, and it’s getting tougher as the country becomes more diverse.

New research shows that Latinos, if categorized as such based on their birthplace and their parents’ and grandparents’ countries of origin rather than the ethnicity they self-identify with, are actually more educated than current US Census data suggest. And that means they may have a better quality of life than people realize.

“To some extent we’re understating the progress of later-generation Hispanics,” said Stephen Trejo, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who co-authored a recent working paper on the topic. “And we’re probably overstating the progress of Asians. But the question is how much.”

The working paper (pdf) published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that current demographic data leave out some second- and third-generation Hispanics because of the way they’re asked to self-identify on surveys. Many, particularly those of interracial or interethnic families, don’t always identify with their Latin heritage. It’s a phenomenon called “ethnic attrition,” in which people assimilate into different cultures and identify less with their ancestors’ ethnicities.

Even for those without mixed-ethnic ancestry, asking what ethnicity someone most-closely identifies with can be a loaded question. It was for me.

I’m a third-generation Latina: I’m white, my parents were born in the US, and my grandparents are from Puerto Rico. But, growing up, I wasn’t fluent in Spanish and didn’t fit in with Latino cliques. So I wasn’t secure enough in my heritage to check the box for “Hispanic” on school forms and college applications. My answer would depend on how I felt when I was asked, or the way the question was posed.

Today, questionnaires typically separate ethnicity from race, or have options for people to indicate their countries of origin. (The way US census questionnaires ask about Hispanic origin changed in 2000, for example.) But self-identifying is still subjective by nature. And the Census Bureau has acknowledged that it needs to make further changes to its questionnaires to properly classify ethnicity.

What’s more, the second- and third-generation Latinos that are missing from the US Hispanic population tend to be more educated than their counterparts.

Economists at the University of Colorado and the University of Texas analyzed US Census Bureau Current Population Survey (CPS) data from 2003 to 2013 to see how first- and second-generation adults and third-generation children self-reported their races and ethnicities. Then they matched the responses to the birth countries of the pollees, their parents, and their grandparents, which the data also detailed. And those who could not be matched were excluded from the study. The researchers noted that the CPS data is unique in including information on ethnicity and the country of origin of respondents and their parents.

Among Hispanics, nearly all—99%—of first-generation immigrants identified with the ethnicity of their source countries. But that rate dropped among later generations: 93% of second-generation and 82% of third-generation Latinos identified as such.

Later generations of Latino immigrants who failed to identify as Hispanic were often more educated than their peers, the study found. Second-generation Latinos who did not identify as Hispanic, had an average of nine months more schooling than those who did identify as Hispanic, according to the analysis of the CPS data, which also detailed respondents’ educational backgrounds. And the trend continued among third-generation Latinos.

The bias in the data is significant, because as the study notes, education is tied to economic success, social status, health, family stability, and other indicators of a person’s quality of life. Without counting these US-born descendants of immigrants, who are more educated and may be more successful than their counterparts, we’re skewing the big picture of how Latinos are progressing in the US.

With a gritty battle for the White House underway, in which the Latino vote has never been more crucial, these nuances can make a big difference. Texas is the next state with a significant Latino community to vote in the US presidential primaries and roughly 40% of its population and 30% of its eligible voters are Hispanic. Candidates are clamoring to learn all they can about what matters to the Latino population in the state and around the country.

Among Asians, which the study also examined, ethnic attrition was more stark among later generations, and the education trend was opposite that of Hispanics—those who didn’t identify as Asian typically had less schooling than their peers who did. But, overall, they were still more educated on average than Latinos.

Correction: The US Census Bureau data set analyzed in the study is the Current Population Survey. An earlier version of this post referred to it as the Community Population Survey.