The Latino population wave that helped transform American cities has tapered off in many metropolitan areas since the recession, although the growth dip was not as pronounced in Nebraska.
"You're not going to have as big a drop-off as in other places that might have been more reliant on construction and other industries tied to the (housing) bubble and the bust," said William Frey of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
Frey's analysis, released Tuesday, found that of 107 large and small metro areas where the number of Latinos doubled between 2000 and 2010, almost all showed a slowdown in Latino population growth by the end of the decade, a change that the researcher says has economic and political implications.
Much of those metro areas' growth over the decade stemmed from demand for workers in construction and other low-skilled industries in rapidly growing parts of the country. Late-decade economic woes, Frey said, curtailed Hispanic growth in those "new destinations."
While the Omaha and Lincoln metro areas followed the general trend, the local slowdown was not as dramatic.
In the Las Vegas area, for example, the Latino growth rate fell from 8 percent in 2005-2006 to 2.4 percent in 2009-2010, and in the Atlanta area it dropped from 8.8 percent to 3.6 percent.
In the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area, the Hispanic growth rate went from 6.6 percent to 5.2 percent during those same periods, and in the Lincoln area it declined from 7.8 percent to 5 percent.
Of the national trend, Frey said: "It kind of stopped on a dime. The big turndown in growth is pervasive."
Some of the slowdown can be attributed to a sharp drop in immigration to the U.S. over the last part of the decade, Frey's report said. However, much of it has to do with a retrenchment to major Hispanic settlement areas. Los Angeles and New York, for example, showed increases in Hispanic population in the last three years of the decade.
In an interview with The World-Herald, Frey said Omaha's Hispanic population was probably less affected because the area has not been hit as hard by the economic downturn that began in 2007, or the subsequent housing crisis that cut construction and roads jobs.
Omaha's growth "was not fueled by cheap mortgages and good deals on houses," Frey said. "So when the migration meltdown came and affected almost all parts of the country, a lot of people who might have wanted to leave Omaha stayed there."
A separate look at statewide census figures shows that the Cornhusker State overall had about the same percentage growth of Hispanics in the middle part of the decade (2005 to 2006) as at the end (2009 to 2010).
And in the 10 Nebraska counties with the most Hispanics, half had a higher Latino growth rate at the end of the decade than in the middle. Unlike in Frey's analysis, not all of those counties doubled their Hispanic population since 2000.
Colfax County, which includes Schuyler, is among the places where the Hispanic growth rate has not tapered off. The growth rate in 2005-2006, the census shows, was nearly 2 percent compared with about 8 percent in 2009-2010.
Robin Stevens, superintendent of mostly Hispanic Schuyler Community Schools, said the district continues to plan for a rise in student enrollment, although it expects about 30 new students next year compared with an average of 50 annually in the past 12 years.
"I have not noticed anything different," he said.
Todd Chessmore, superintendent of Lexington Public Schools, said enrollment has grown just slightly in the past few years. "It's not flat. We've seen a slow growth."
He said the Hispanic population in Lexington is established. The city was one of the first in Nebraska to see a Latino immigration influx, and many children of those early families settled in town and are sending their own kids to school.
Statewide, Nebraska's Latino population jumped 77 percent between 2000 and 2010, when the state's population overall increased by 7 percent.
Nationally, the U.S. Hispanic population jumped 43 percent to 50.5 million, growing especially fast throughout the South and in smaller metropolitan areas in the Midwest and Northeast.
The Latino population more than tripled in places that include Palm Coast, Fla.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Wausau, Wis. Job opportunities and an influx of new immigrants from Mexico and Latin America helped drive the boom.
But with the economic downturn, many of those same communities have seen their Latino growth rates flatten out. Frey pointed to such cities as Palm Coast, a Florida community of about 100,000 whose Latino population surged 19 percent annually for three years in the middle of the past decade. It rose by just 1.9 percent in 2010.
Cities like Los Angeles that have long served as gateways and hubs for immigrants still notched small upticks in Latino growth rates at the end of the decade. In fact, the Latino population in the Los Angeles area, which was flat in 2006 at the peak of the national housing boom, expanded by 1.5 percent in 2010. New York showed a similar pattern. Its Latino growth slowed in the middle of the decade but was up by 2.4 percent in 2010.
The reason is that many Latinos who had left the big metropolitan areas to find jobs and cheaper housing in smaller cities earlier in the decade returned to those big cities during the tough economic times, Frey said.
Those gateway cities are "the anchors for new minorities, places where friends and relatives are ready to take in kids, provide social and financial support when times are bad," he said.
He said it was unclear whether the broad distribution of Latinos across the country that occurred through much of the past decade would resume in coming years.
For many places, the question isn't just academic. As Latino populations boomed in many communities in past years, they often brought an influx of labor and a potential new base of customers for retailers and other industries.
"Since both low- and high-skilled Hispanic workers will be important for future economic growth, it will be essential to find ways to restart their migration once the economy revives," Frey said.
There may be political repercussions as well.
The new analysis suggests that political leaders counting on an increasingly large bloc of Latino voters to support their candidates and causes — particularly in the Midwest and the Southeast — may be disappointed.
"They may make less of a difference than people thought," Frey said.
World-Herald staff writer Paul Goodsell contributed to this report, which includes material from the Chicago Tribune.
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