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Op-ed: The importance of Hispanics and Latinos to the U.S. economy

Ana Hernández Kent, senior researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
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Economic equity is not a zero-sum game. If Hispanics and Latinos were fully and equitably included in the U.S. economy, gains for the broader society could be tremendous. In fact, closing gender gaps and gaps for all races and ethnicities in employment, education and earnings could generate annual GDP gains in the trillions of dollars.

Unfortunately, existing gaps are quite wide. The typical wealth outcomes of Hispanics and Latinos remain low and greatly lag behind those of their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hispanic and Latino families had just $38,000 of median wealth. This amounts to 21 cents for every dollar of white family wealth.

Hispanic and Latino income, GDP and consumption growth were extraordinarily strong prior to the pandemic, yet they weren't strong enough to put a significant dent in the wealth gap. This matters, because families with little to no wealth are much more likely to suffer financial, food and housing insecurity and be unable to withstand unexpected negative events, like losing a job or experiencing a health scare. These circumstances materialized for many families during the Covid-19-induced recession. Millions lost their jobs, and Hispanics and Latinos had the highest unemployment rate, which reached 18.9% in April 2020.

Improving wealth outcomes, then, is critical for resiliency, prosperity and self-actualization. Most important, greater wealth could provide Hispanics and Latinos the power to make choices that many people take for granted, such as acquiring education or moving to a location with better opportunities.

The pandemic laid bare many inequities, and it also showed the benefits of education. Highly educated workers were much more likely to work from home and less likely to have lost their jobs.

Hispanics and Latinos have the lowest educational-attainment levels of any race or ethnicity in the U.S.; they were also the least likely to telecommute, and many risked their health and that of their families by continuing to work on-site.

Education alone, however, is not the answer to economic inequity. Hispanic and Latino families whose highest level of education was a bachelor's degree had less median wealth in 2019 than non-Hispanic white families whose highest level of education was a high school degree. This stark disparity makes it clear that more education is not the silver bullet to achieving equity.

Wealth is not solely the result of individual choices such as earning a college degree. Factors outside a person's control — such as our parents' economic standing, our race and ethnicity, and even our birth year — continue to be important influencers.

In light of these barriers, how, then, do we achieve economic equity?

We have a variety of innovative and evidence-based tools at our disposal. Solutions like baby bonds and 401(K)IDS enable wealth building at an early age. Business and community leaders and policymakers can address discrimination in hiring, salaries and promotions and provide support for families by offering a wider range of benefits to more employees, including paid time off. Making child care more affordable and accessible could also have a positive impact.

On an individual level, everyone can learn more about the causes and consequences of these gaps. We can all be explicit in naming discrimination as a barrier and use our voices to advance solutions. A prosperous Hispanic and Latino economy contributes to a thriving American economy. Far from being a zero-sum game, equity can lead to broad economic prosperity.

I certainly plan to do my part; ¿y tú?

—By Ana Hernández Kent, senior researcher for the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The views here are her own, and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or the Federal Reserve System.

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