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Arizona, your future is looking back at you in the mirror

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By Joseph Garcia

If Arizona were to take an honest look in the mirror, she might be surprised by the permanent tan looking back.

The face of Arizona is getting browner, with 46 percent more Latinos living here than just a decade ago. Demographics and other data tell us a much larger and younger Latino generation is coming up fast.

 An example of the change can be found as this school year begins, when, for the first time, it is expected there will be more Latino children enrolled in Arizona’s K-12 public school system than non-Latino whites, as noted in the Morrison Institute for Public Policy 2012 report, Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona’s Economic Future.

In some cases, but certainly far from all, one or both parents may be undocumented immigrants, but the fact is that virtually all Latino children in Arizona were born here and are, therefore, U.S. citizens.

We must recognize our growing Latino population as an asset – our answer to a looming workforce shortage that we know will follow this recession, as more non-Latino whites continue to retire in greater numbers and the number of high-skill jobs, which require more training and education due to changes in technology, rises. 

In difficult times, it is a difficult thing to look to the future. But, we must have the foresight to see beyond today’s troubling times if we expect to commit to success tomorrow. In addition, we must have a goal and we must have a plan, both of which require pertinent information and dialogue.

We need all citizens to be their best. Arizona Latinos face many unique challenges and opportunities, ones that must be addressed now through forward-thinking public policy if our state is to advance to the next level of regional, national and international competitiveness.

As the Dropped? report notes: If nothing is done to close Arizona’s educational achievement gap, the number of adults with less than a high school education could rise from 524,000 in 2010 to around 858,000 in 2030. The vast majority of these dropouts, perhaps 670,000 (78 percent) will be Latino.

With the trend for lower average incomes and fewer jobs for low-skilled laborers, Arizona’s unemployment and poverty rates can be expected to worsen, accompanied by a greater demand on state services and less revenue to pay for them.

Projections indicate that, by 2030, the combined average income for Latinos and whites in Arizona could drop to $32,423 (in 2010 dollars), down from 2010’s combined average of $39,667, if income and education trends continue.

Simply put, we can have a skilled and educated workforce to ensure a vibrant economy by making the Latino educational achievement gap – and Arizona’s poor education standing in general – a top priority. Or, we can devolve to a low-wage state incapable of competing in the new economy or sustaining an otherwise promising future.

We can have more people paying into the system by realizing the full potential of our citizenry through new opportunities and financial achievement. Or, we can have more people – Latinos and others – with few options but to take from the system as both government and families struggle.

We can change the all-too-common negative rhetoric regarding Latinos by helping shape new leadership by providing a more accurate picture of Arizona Latinos. Or, we can fall victim to the divisive and polarizing politics that Arizona and the nation already know too well. 

In other words, we owe it to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren to take a good look in the mirror and not see a stranger staring back, but a familiar face welcoming the opportunity to join the many other faces who make Arizona great.

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