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Study Foresees Crisis for Latinos in L.A. County

Times Staff Writer

Latinos trying to achieve the American dream in Los Angeles County are facing daunting challenges in access to health, education, housing and other necessities that could result in a “crisis in the future workforce,” according a report released Thursday by the United Way.

Assembled by university professors and other experts, the “Latino Scorecard 2003 -- Grading the American Dream” issued a letter grade in five areas key to economic advancement for the local Latino community. Joe Haggerty, president of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said he hoped the study would help policymakers and Latinos set priorities for the coming decade, when the Latino population, which is now 45% of the county total, is expected to become a majority.

“What happens to Latinos happens to the rest of the community, in many ways,” Haggerty said, noting that the current majority of the county’s public school students is Latino. “If they don’t have a chance to get a good education and go to college, Southern California is going to face some very big problems.”

Among the study’s grades and findings:

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* Health: Grade C. At 82.5 years, Latino life expectancy is higher than that of non-Latinos. But the study found that Latinos do not get enough exercise and are more likely to be obese than other ethnic groups. And, about 38% of the county’s Latinos lack health insurance.

While the county needs an additional 10,800 Spanish-speaking physicians, only 38 Latinos were enrolled in county medical schools in fall 2002.

* Education: Grade D. The county’s Latino students are less likely than those in other ethnic groups to participate in pre-kindergarten programs. Only 19% of students score better than the national average in reading in standardized tests and by 12th grade 40% fewer Latinos are enrolled in high school than in ninth grade.

* Economic development: Grade C. Latino households have a median income of $34,000, which is $8,000 less than that for the county as a whole. But the study notes that per capita income is particularly low because Latinos tend to have “larger, younger families.”

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The study noted Latinos’ “strong work ethic and thriving entrepreneurial spirit,” but warned that the Latino business community would continue to grow only with better education, job skills training and increased access to capital.

* Housing: Grade D. Latino home ownership in the county is 38%, compared with 58% for whites, and Latinos received only 17% of all new home loans in 2001. Researchers were especially concerned about housing availability, noting that one new home is being built for every 30 Latinos who take up residence in the county. In 2001, home prices rose by 12%, while incomes grew by 3%.

* Public safety: Grade C. In the city of Los Angeles, Latinos make up 46.5% of the population, but 53% of the victims of violent crime, the report said. The study notes that rates of property and hate crimes against Latinos are low, but that underreporting of such crimes is a problem. It also says Latinos are underrepresented in the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department.

The study pointed to a number of strengths in the Latino community, including strong families. Manuel Pastor, a Latin American and Latino studies professor at UC Santa Cruz, noted that more than 40% of Latino households in Los Angeles County are headed by married couples with children, compared with a non-Latino household figure of 20%.

But Pastor wrote that changes in public policy will also be necessary to solve the problems facing Latinos, especially the daunting challenges faced by very recent immigrants.

“The progress we see now for third- and fourth-generation Latinos occurred in a different time, one in which public investment in the state’s infrastructure, economy and schools was part of our civic DNA,” he wrote in a summary of the study.

But public investment is a challenge in a time of budget crises, and Haggerty acknowledged that some of the study’s recommendations -- such as expanding housing assistance and public safety programs -- would be difficult to fund.

He also pointed to other recommendations that have no public price tag -- from the call to prohibit the sale of junk food on school campuses to initiatives by banks and lending institutions to reach out to Latino constituencies.

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One issue the study did not focus on was illegal immigration’s effects on the prospects of legal Latino immigrants, which concerned James Staudenraus, field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that supports more rigorous enforcement of immigration laws. According to spokeswoman Victoria Pipkin, Los Angeles County is home to an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants.

“What they are doing, clearly, is ignoring a major cause of Southern California’s poverty,” Staudenraus said of the study. “Any scorecard they give has got to say these problems are adversely impacted by current immigration policy, and will continue to trend in the wrong direction if those policies are not changed.”

Fernando Guerra, an author of the study and the director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles, said the goal of the study was to help people in L.A. County understand the problems that already exist, regardless of what immigration policies might be in the future.

“Our whole point about this was to have an audit so we can make wise investments and decisions about the future of L.A. County,” he said.

“Latino Scorecard 2003" is the first of three planned biennial reports.


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