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Low-Wage Latino Workers

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Written by Janelle Jones and John Schmitt   
Wednesday, 04 April 2012 11:15

For the past few weeks, CEPR has been beating the federal minimum wage drum with a series of issue briefs. In the latest brief, we describe how the increases in age and education of the low-wage workforce have not been recognized by the minimum wage. Several people have emailed us to ask how it is that the influx of primarily Latino immigrants since the 1980s has not pulled down the educational attainment of low-wage workers.

There are two important points here: First, Latinos are indeed over-represented among low-wage workers, but they are still only about one-fourth of the total in that wage range; and second, Latinos, even after the increase in immigrants over the last three decades, are still much better educated today than they were in 1979.

On the first point, here is the racial breakdown of low-wage workers (defined as earning $10 an hour or less in inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars):

Low-wage Workers, By Race, 1979 and 2011
(percent)

 

1979

2011

White

77.5

56.9

Black

13.4

14.3

Latino

6.7

23.2

Other

2.4

1.1

Source: Authors' analysis of CPS ORG.

Latinos were a much smaller share of the workforce in 1979 and made up only about 7 percent of low-wage workers in that year. The Latino population grew substantially in the intervening decades and Latinos are over-represented in low-wage jobs, but they were still only about one-fourth (23 percent) of low-wage workers in 2011.

To illustrate the second point --that Latinos are much better educated today than in the past, even after the influx of typically less-educated immigrants-- here is the educational breakdown of low-wage Latino workers in 1979 and 2011:

Low-wage Latino Workers, By Education, 1979 and 2011
(percent)

 

1979

2011

Less Than High School

61.9

39.7

High School

25.0

35.9

Some College

11.5

20.6

College+

1.6

3.9

Source: Authors' analysis of CPS ORG.

In 1979, about 60 percent of low-wage Latinos had less than a high school degree. In 2011, the number was still very high --but had fallen sharply to only about 40 percent --a substantial improvement in educational attainment over the past three decades.

Two caveats apply. The first is that the Current Population Survey data, which we use here and in our recent report, almost certainly undercount undocumented workers. Undocumented workers are included in the survey, but may be less likely to respond. So, the numbers here might not fully reflect the experience of low-wage Latino workers.

The second caveat is that the Great Recession has also likely played a part in this story. After the downturn in the labor market, many Latino immigrants, especially less-educated workers in the construction sector, may have returned to their countries of origin, and the inflow of new arrivals has certainly been much slower since the recession began than it was in the preceding years. As a result, the numbers on educational attainment for low-wage Latino workers might look a bit better in 2011 than they did in 2007.

Even taking these two caveats into account, it is hard to overstate just how much better educated low-wage Latino workers are today than they were in the not-so-distant past.

Tags: Latinos | minimum wage | workers

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