What Obamanomics Has Meant for Latinos

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From September 15 to October 15, America celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, signed into law by President Reagan in 1988. How have Latinos fared in America over the past three years, since they helped to send Barack Obama to the White House?

Like many Americans, not well.

President Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008. Only President Clinton in 1996 won a higher percentage, 72 percent. Many reasons may explain those votes.

When Mr. Obama was elected, some Americans believed he was serious about his campaign promises of immigration reform, an important issue for many voters. Those reforms were expected to include allowing more legal immigrants into the country for work, tourism, and study, and regularizing the status of many of the 11 million undocumented workers already in America.

Three years later, immigration reform is more remote than ever. Once elected, the Obama administration has had other priorities, chiefly environmental and health policy.

Our immigration policies remain a national embarrassment, confused and confusing and getting worse. Franz Kafka could never have imagined a more opaque, arbitrary, and unjust system than American immigration. It is a testament to the overwhelming attraction of America that people still seek to become Americans despite our immigration policies.

Mr. Obama needs to go before the country and call for major immigration reform. It should be easier for workers, students, and tourists to enter the country legally. Equally important, it should be easier for the Homeland Security Department to track visitors while they are here to prevent them from overstaying their visas.

It is impractical to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Mr. Obama should suggest a path forward, such as allowing those who have not committed crimes to pay a fine, get a visa, and start on a path to permanent residency.

When Mr. Obama was elected, some believed that he would take steps to improve the economic welfare of all Americans, including Hispanic Americans. But if asked "Are you better off today than you were three years ago?" most Americans would say "No."

Latinos have fared even worse than the population as a whole. Historically, Latinos have been more likely to be in poverty than other Americans, and that situation has worsened in recent years.

This month the Census Bureau released data for 2010 showing the national poverty level to be 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 and 13.3 percent in 2008. Over the course of the recession, the percentage of Hispanic Americans below the poverty line has increased from 23 percent in 2008 to nearly 27 percent in 2010.

In comparison, white Americans faced a poverty rate of 13 percent, lower than the national 15.1 percent rate. This means Hispanics were more than twice as likely as whites to be living in poverty in America.

Many Latinos are in poverty not because they lack work, but in spite of hard work. A higher percentage of Hispanics in poverty worked full-time in 2010, 12.3 percent, than the national average of 8.3 percent of poor people who worked full- time. In comparison, of poor whites, 7.2 percent worked full-time, and, of poor blacks, 6.8 percent worked full time.

Over the past three years, unemployment in the Latino community has jumped, as it has nationally. In August 2011 the national unemployment rate was 9.1 percent. Among Hispanics in the labor force, 11.3 percent were unemployed, compared with an unemployment rate of 6.8 percent in 2008.

It is difficult to look at America, and especially the Hispanic community, and find that the economic policies of the past three years have been successful. Over a trillion dollars of "stimulus" has left America with seemingly more problems than solutions, including uncontrolled government spending, high deficits, and unnecessarily burdensome regulation.

Many low-skill Hispanics have been adversely affected by the $2,000 per worker annual tax under the new health care law, set to take effect in 2014, for employers with over 49 workers who do not offer health insurance.

The Food Preparation and Service industry, which employs 8.5% of all Hispanics and which offers little health insurance, lost over 200,000 jobs each year from 2008 to 2010. Construction, which employers about 11 percent of Hispanics, has lost 1.5 million jobs from 2008 to 2010.

Freedom-loving people, whether born here or elsewhere, still yearn for the American dream and for a better life for our children. Even in dismal economic conditions, America is the beacon of hope in a world of despair.

All Americans can celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. All Americans share in the American dream and in the hope for economic growth. In the past three years, we simply have had too little of the latter. Let's hope the future holds more promise.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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