News Column

Affluence in Two Cultures

December 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

In their landmark 1985 study "Hispanics in the U.S. Economy," professors George Borjas and Marta Tienda predicted that the U.S. Hispanic experience would "yield insights on such diverse and important topics as the value of language acquisition in the labor market, the accumulation of human capital investments by 'new' labor market entrants (i.e., the immigrants), and the significance of the reason for immigration ('economic' immigrants versus political refugees)." In the 19 years since the publication of the study, new data have confirmed several trends identified in the study, particularly about language in the workplace.

The long-term data trend shows that higher income and buying power result from acquisition of English-language skills. A 2002 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 65 percent of Spanish-dominant Hispanic households earn less $30,000 annually, while on the other end of the spectrum, 29 percent of English-dominant Hispanics earn $50,000 or more. Fully 66 percent of English-dominant Hispanics work in white-collar positions (see table, "Income & Occupation, by Language Dominance").

Household income Spanish-dominant Bilingual English-dominant
Less than $30,000 65% 37% 35%
$30,000-$50,000 16% 31% 29%
$50,000+ 4% 26% 29%
Don't know 15% 6% 7%
Occupation, if employed      
White collar 23% 61% 66%
Blue collar 74% 35% 31%
Other 3% 3% 3%
Source: The Pew Hispanic Center, National Survey of Latinos, 2002

Household income Foreign-born Hispanics Native-born Hispanics
Less than $30,000 57% 37%
$30,000-$50,000 20% 28%
$50,000+ 11% 27%
Don't know 12% 8%
Occupation, if employed    
White collar 31% 69%
Blue collar 65% 28%
Other 3% 3%
Source: The Pew Hispanic Center, National Survey of Latinos, 2002

Income correlates more strongly with language than with nativity, according to the Pew study. While 65 percent of foreign-born Hispanics work in blue-collar jobs, 74 percent of Spanish-dominant ones work in that category (see table, "Income & Occupation, by Nativity"). Obviously, these variables are related; other data show that most Spanish-dominant Hispanics are foreign-born (see "Language of the Middle Class" in this issue).

Not surprisingly, Hispanics tend to speak English in the workplace. A majority (53 percent) of U.S. Hispanics speak mainly Spanish at home, but nearly the same proportion (48 percent) predominantly speak English at work. More than a quarter of employed Hispanics speak both languages at work. "In the job market, English fluency is critical," says Adela de la Torre, director of Chicano Studies at the University of California at Davis. "Bilingual individuals are often able to enter labor segments where cultural bridging is critical, including professions like medicine and law. … Cultural-bridge individuals are increasingly in demand across the spectrum of jobs."

Consumption and wealth accumulation represent the end purposes of income. Here English-speakers constitute "an affluent and rapidly expanding sub-set [of the Hispanic population], which controls a dominant share of overall purchasing power," states the HispanTelligence® report U.S. Hispanic Consumers in Transition.

According to HispanTelligence estimates, total U.S. Hispanic purchasing power reached nearly $600 billion in 2003. To help organize and manage their money, Hispanics are increasingly looking to the U.S. financial system. Pew data indicate that English-speaking Hispanics enter the financial system at much higher rates than do Spanish-speakers. Only half of Spanish-dominant Hispanics have bank accounts, compared with 79 percent of English-dominants. In the higher-income category ($50,000+), 98 percent of English-dominant Hispanics use a bank (see table, "Bank Accounts").

On the asset side of the ledger, only 50 percent of Spanish-dominant Hispanics own their homes – significantly less than the 70 percent homeownership rate of the English-dominant segment (see table, "Homeownership Rates"). Thus, language acquisition correlates with both income generation and wealth-building through home ownership and banking activity.


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