'Poverty Is Relative'

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 20, 2006; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The cat is out of the bag -- the majority of Latino immigrants in the United States are poor. By one calculation, up to three-fifths are "working poor" or "lower middle class," with annual incomes of less than $30,000.

The bad news seems worse when one considers that as Hispanics gain in the U.S. population, the share of Hispanics in poverty doubled from 12 percent in 1980 to 25 percent in 2004. Recent immigrants fared worse. In 2006, the U.S. government drew the poverty line at $20,000 annually for a family of four, or a little more than $1,600 a month. But for those newly arrived from Latin America, the average monthly salary was $900, according to a new report released this week by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

If immigrants, especially Hispanics, are card-carrying members of the U.S. underclass, society at large is having a hard time convincing them of it: Latino immigrants are too busy working, buying cars, purchasing homes, and even investing abroad.

Such a lifestyle is not exactly the picture of poverty. The poor are supposed to be the down and out -- the hungry and depressed standing in bread lines. Under this stereotype, they struggle for basic goods and services and are left outside the mainstream, unable to get ahead.

Yet observers of the Latino experience in the United States say that Hispanic immigrants generally don't fit this mold for two basic reasons: choices and attitude. Immigrants cut what corners they can to keep rent, health care, sundry expenses and taxes to a minimum. They also leave family behind, clearly the most painful among their money-saving strategies to reduce the number of dependents in the United States.

The income they pull together from their jobs is pumped into work-related expenses and living essentials, putting 90 percent of their earnings back into the U.S. economy, according to the IDB. Most of the rest of their incomes they invest in their homelands as remittances.

The IDB report found that immigrants will send home approximately $45 billion in remittances in 2006, creating "one of the broadest and most effective poverty alleviation programs in the world." It also found that the majority of migrants want to purchase a family home or open a small business in their home country. One-third said they had already made investments, mainly in real estate. These are not the actions of the economically deprived.

Hispanic immigrants don't necessarily feel excluded or underserved either. In an education survey, the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation found two years ago that Hispanic immigrants were notably positive about the quality of public school education in their area. More pointedly, the survey concluded that Hispanics are not a "disgruntled population that views itself as greatly disadvantaged or victimized."

What Hispanics do with their money and how they live reflect not deprivation or exclusion but an attitude of abundance. Poverty is relative. Less than $20,000 a year may rank an immigrant statistically poor, but this income may be seen as a fortune to someone who was making less than a tenth of that back home.

So, at the end of the day what do we have? A growing number of immigrant poor? Well, yes. A growing number of depressed and downtrodden? Heck no. Hispanic immigrants, just as their immigrant predecessors, are optimists. The IDB found that despite the fact that 64 percent of remittance senders have an annual household income of less than $30,000, most believe their economic situation in the United States is good (58 percent) or excellent (10 percent), and that they are confident about the future.

Optimists, of course, make poor fodder for those who would cast immigrants as down and out. The poor that strive, spend and invest do not easily fit the argument so often used over the past months: that immigrants represent a drag to the U.S. economy.

Sure, due to immigration, the ranks of Hispanics among the poor in this country have grown. And while their incomes initially may be lower than those of native workers, economists such as Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute have found that they "improve more quickly" than those of natives.

Those who use poverty to disparage immigration will continue to argue that immigrants -- particularly those here illegally -- hurt the U.S. economy. The reality is that rather than increasing poverty rates in this country, Hispanic immigrants are helping decrease poverty rates south of the border -- and with that they are doing more than anyone else to stem the future flow of immigration.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


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