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Unless the life chances of children raised by single mothers suddenly improve, the explosive growth of the U.S. Hispanic population over the next couple of decades does not bode well for American social stability. Hispanic immigrants bring near — Third World levels of fertility to America, coupled with what were once thought to be First World levels of illegitimacy. (In fact, family breakdown is higher in many Hispanic countries than here.) Nearly half of the children born to Hispanic mothers in the U.S. are born out of wedlock, a proportion that has been increasing rapidly with no signs of slowing down. Given what psychologists and sociologists now know about the much higher likelihood of social pathology among those who grow up in single-mother households, the Hispanic baby boom is certain to produce more juvenile delinquents, more school failure, more welfare use, and more teen pregnancy in the future.
The dimensions of the Hispanic baby boom are startling. The Hispanic birthrate is twice as high as that of the rest of the American population. That high fertility rate — even more than unbounded levels of immigration — will fuel the rapid Hispanic population boom in the coming decades. By 2050, the Latino population will have tripled, the Census Bureau projects. One in four Americans will be Hispanic by mid-century, twice the current ratio. In states such as California and Texas, Hispanics will be in the clear majority. Nationally, whites will drop from near 70 percent of the total population in 2000 to just half by 2050. Hispanics will account for 46 percent of the nation’s added population over the next two decades, the Pew Hispanic Center reports.
But it’s the fertility surge among unwed Hispanics that should worry policymakers. Hispanic women have the highest unmarried birthrate in the country — over three times that of whites and Asians, and nearly one and a half times that of black women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Every 1,000 unmarried Hispanic women bore 92 children in 2003 (the latest year for which data exist), compared with 28 children for every 1,000 unmarried white women, 22 for every 1,000 unmarried Asian women, and 66 for every 1,000 unmarried black women. Forty-five percent of all Hispanic births occur outside of marriage, compared with 24 percent of white births and 15 percent of Asian births. Only the percentage of black out-of-wedlock births — 68 percent — exceeds the Hispanic rate. But the black population is not going to triple over the next few decades.
As if the unmarried Hispanic birthrate weren’t worrisome enough, it is increasing faster than among other groups. It jumped 5 percent from 2002 to 2003, whereas the rate for other unmarried women remained flat. Couple the high and increasing illegitimacy rate of Hispanics with their higher overall fertility rate, and you have a recipe for unstoppable family breakdown.
Dr. Ana Sanchez delivers babies at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the city of Orange, California, many of them to Hispanic teenagers. To her dismay, they view having a child at their age as normal. A recent patient just had her second baby at age 17; the baby’s father is in jail. But what is “most alarming,” Sanchez says, is that the “teens’ parents view having babies outside of marriage as normal, too. A lot of the grandmothers are single as well; they never married, or they had successive partners. So the mom sends the message to her daughter that it’s okay to have children out of wedlock.”
Conservatives who support open borders are fond of invoking “Hispanic family values” as a benefit of unlimited Hispanic immigration. Marriage is clearly no longer one of those family values. But other kinds of traditional Hispanic values have survived — not all of them necessarily ideal in a modern economy, however. One of them is the importance of having children early and often. “It’s considered almost a badge of honor for a young girl to have a baby,” says Peggy Schulze of Chrysalis House, an adoption agency in Fresno. (Fresno has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in California, typical of the state’s heavily Hispanic farm districts.) It is almost impossible to persuade young single Hispanic mothers to give up their children for adoption, Schulze says. “The attitude is: ‘How could you give away your baby?’ I don’t know how to break through.”
The most powerful Hispanic family value — the tight-knit extended family — facilitates unwed child rearing. A single mother’s relatives often step in to make up for the absence of the baby’s father. I asked Mona, a 19-year-old parishioner at St. Joseph’s Church in Santa Ana, California, if she knew any single mothers. She laughed: “There are so many I can’t even name them.” Two of her cousins, aged 25 and 19, have children without having husbands. The situation didn’t seem to trouble this churchgoer too much. “They’ll be strong enough to raise them. It’s totally okay with us,” she said. “We’re very close; we’re there to support them. They’ll do just fine.”
The fathers of these illegitimate children are often problematic in even more troubling ways. Social workers report that the impregnators of younger Hispanic women are with some regularity their uncles, not necessarily seen as a bad thing by the mother’s family. Alternatively, the father may be the boyfriend of the girl’s mother, who then continues to stay with the grandmother. Older men seek out young girls in the belief that a virgin cannot get pregnant during her first intercourse, and to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
The tradition of starting families young and expand- ing them quickly can come into conflict with more modern American mores. Ron Storm, the director of the Hillview Acres foster-care home in Chino, tells of a 15-year-old girl who was taken away from the 21-year-old father of her child by a local child-welfare department. The boyfriend went to jail, charged with rape. But the girl’s parents complained about the agency’s interference, and eventually both the girl and her boyfriend ended up going back to Mexico, presumably to have more children. “At 15, as the Quinceañera tradition celebrates, you’re considered ready for marriage,” says Storm. Or at least for childbearing; the marriage part is disappearing.
But though older men continue to take advantage of younger women, the age gap between the mother and the father of an illegitimate child is quickly closing. Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties tries to teach young fathers to take responsibility for their children. “We’re seeing a lot more 13- and 14-year-old fathers,” says Kathleen Collins, v.p. of health education. The day before we spoke, Scott Montoya, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, arrested two 14-year-old boys who were bragging about having sexual relations with a cafeteria worker from an Olive Garden restaurant. “It’s now all about getting girls pregnant when you’re age 15,” he says. One 18-year-old in the Planned Parenthood fathers’ program has two children by two different girls and is having sex with five others, says health worker Jason Warner. “A lot of [the adolescent sexual behavior] has to do with getting respect from one’s peers,” observes Warner.
Two teen mothers at the Hillview Acres home represent the outer edge of Hispanic family dysfunction. Yet many aspects of their lives are typical. Though these teenagers’ own mothers were unusually callous and irresponsible, the social milieu in which they were raised is not unusual.
Despite the strong family support, the prevalence of single parenting among Hispanics is producing the inevitable slide into the welfare system. “The girls aren’t marrying the guys, so they are married to the state,” Dr. Sanchez observes. Hispanics now dominate the federal Women, Infants, and Children free food program; Hispanic enrollment grew over 25 percent from 1996 to 2002, while black enrollment dropped 12 percent and white enrollment dropped 6.5 percent. Illegal immigrants can get WIC and other welfare programs for their American-born children. If Congress follows President Bush’s urging and grants amnesty to most of the 11 million illegal aliens in the country today, expect the welfare rolls to skyrocket as the parents themselves become eligible.
The consequences of family breakdown are now being passed down from one generation to the next, in an echo of the black underclass. “The problems are deeper and wider,” says Berry. “Now you’re getting the second generation of foster care and group home residents. The dysfunction is multigenerational.”
The trendy “case management” concept, in which individual “cases” become the focal point around which a solar system of social workers revolves, has even reached heavily Hispanic elementary and middle schools. “We have a coordinator, who brings in a collaboration of agencies to deal with the issues that don’t allow a student to meet his academic goals, such as domestic violence or drugs,” explains Sylvia Rentria, director of the Family Resource Center at Berendo Middle School in Los Angeles. “We can provide individual therapy.” Rentria offers the same program at nearby Hoover Elementary School for up to 100 students.
This July, Rentria launched a new session of Berendo’s Violence Intervention Program for parents of children who are showing signs of gang involvement and other antisocial behavior. Ghady M., 55 and a “madre soltera” (single mother), like most of the mothers in the program, has been called in because her 16-year-old son, Christian, has been throwing gang signs at school, cutting half his classes, and ending up in the counseling office every day. The illegal Guatemalan is separated from her partner, who was “muy malo,” she says; he was probably responsible for her many missing teeth. (The detectives in the heavily Hispanic Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, which includes the Berendo school, spend inordinate amounts of time on domestic violence cases.) Though Ghady used to work in a factory on Broadway in downtown L.A. — often referred to as Little Mexico City — she now collects $580 in welfare payments and $270 in food stamps for her two American-born children.
Yet for all these markers of social dysfunction, fatherless Hispanic families differ from the black underclass in one significant area: many of the mothers and the absent fathers work, even despite growing welfare use. The former boyfriend of Jessica, the 18-year-old mother at the Hillview Acres foster home, works in construction and moonlights on insulation jobs; whether he still deals drugs is unknown. Jessica is postponing joining her father in Texas until she finishes high school, because once she moves in with him, she will feel obligated to get a job to help the family finances. The mother of Hillview’s 14-year-old Irene used to fix soda machines in Anaheim, California, though she got fired because she was lazy, Irene says. Now, under court compulsion, she works in a Lunchables factory in Santa Ana, a condition of getting her children back from foster care. The 18-year-old Lothario and father of two, whom Planned Parenthood’s Jason Warner is trying to counsel, works at a pet store. The mother of Carrie, the vivacious ten-year-old sitting in on Berendo Middle School’s Violence Intervention Program, makes pizza at a Papa John’s pizza outlet.
How these two value systems — a lingering work ethic and underclass mating norms — will interact in the future is anyone’s guess. Orange County sheriff’s deputy Montoya says that the older Hispanic generation’s work ethic is fast disappearing among the gangbanging youngsters whom he sees. “Now, it’s all about fast money, drugs, and sex.” It may be that the willingness to work will plummet along with marriage rates, leading to even greater social problems than are now rife among Hispanics. Or it may be that the two contrasting practices will remain on parallel tracks, creating a new kind of underclass: a culture that tolerates free-floating men who impregnate women and leave, like the vast majority of black men, yet who still labor in the noncriminal economy. The question is whether, if the disposition to work remains relatively strong, a working parent will inoculate his or her illegitimate children against the worst degradations that plague black ghettos.
(Posted on November 15, 2006)