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Maria Benitez’s husband brings home $80 a day from his job painting houses. She supplements that by selling Mexican candies in South Omaha from a cart she pushes down the street.
But after paying rent and other bills, there’s often not much money left to feed the couple and their three children.
That’s why the 50-year-old Benitez recently stood in a light snow outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Church accepting free sack lunches handed out by James Parsons, who runs a street ministry assisting Omaha’s needy.
While Benitez and the two dozen others accepting the charity that day expressed their thanks, she also gratefully offered Parsons something in return: homemade tortillas from her kitchen.
Benitez and her family are part of a fast-growing population of Hispanics in South Omaha who know the hardships of living en la pobreza: “in poverty.” Recent Census Bureau figures show that the poverty rate among the Hispanic population in Nebraska as well as in Omaha has been dramatically on the rise.
Poverty for Hispanic households in the Omaha metro area climbed steadily from 16.9 percent in 2000 to 27.6 percent in the most recent census data.
For the first time, the Omaha’s Hispanic poverty rate now is higher than the national Hispanic average. Just as alarming, Hispanic poverty now approaches the levels seen in Omaha’s black community, which at times in recent years has suffered from one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.
“The attention in Omaha has been on black poverty, given the disparity in black versus white,” said David Drozd, a University of Nebraska at Omaha demographer who identified the new trend in the census data. “But now it’s obvious Hispanic poverty is becoming a bigger problem.”
The figures come as a bit of a surprise.
Making up a growing share of the city’s workforce and supporting a vibrant business district on South 24th Street, Omaha’s Hispanic community for years seemed to fare relatively well economically. Income figures backed that up. In 2000, the metro area’s population had one of the lowest Hispanic poverty rates in the country.
But that’s clearly changing.
Poverty experts and advocates for the Hispanic community offer a variety of theories for the trend: the Great Recession and its aftermath; falling wages in the state’s meat-packing industry and in other low-wage jobs; changes in the family structure of Hispanic households, including more single-parent homes; and the legal and social marginalization of Hispanics who immigrated here illegally. It’s likely all those factors have had impact.
Lourdes Gouveia, a sociologist who directs UNO’s Office of Latino/Latin American Studies, said she fears that Hispanics — who have surpassed blacks as the metro area’s largest minority group — could be falling into the same cycle of multigenerational poverty that has long ravaged black communities in Omaha and across the nation.
“I think it’s really important to sound this alarm,” she said. “If there are not sufficient interventions to halt this downward trend, we are going to see poverty rates close to African-American poverty, and neighborhoods with pockets of violence — because that’s what happens when young people lose hope.”
The poverty issue is also sure to inflame the heated debate over illegal immigration, particularly on how to deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Robert Rector, who studies poverty and immigration for the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said history has shown increased poverty does follow illegal immigration. A Heritage study estimated that 35 percent of the nation’s illegal immigrants are poor, well above the rates of 19 percent for legal immigrants and 13 percent for nonimmigrants. Today, he said, one of every 10 children in poverty in America is the son or daughter of an illegal immigrant parent.
“If you have an increase in illegal immigration to a community, poverty rates will go up,” he said.
Others say the crackdowns in recent years on immigrants living and working here illegally have compounded the poverty problem, taking vital wage earners out of homes and throwing families into disarray. One 2013 study by immigration reform advocates estimated that deportations nationally were throwing as many as 83,000 households a year into poverty.
“When you lose a wage earner in the family, there are economic consequences to that,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, who directs immigration programs for Nebraska Appleseed, a left-of-center policy and advocacy group based in Lincoln.
Until Congress passes meaningful immigration reform that recognizes the role that Hispanic workers play in the economy, she said, families will remain at risk of falling into poverty.
When it comes to keeping Hispanic families from becoming trapped in chronic, cyclical poverty, nearly all agree that education is critical.
Ken Bird, a former school administrator who now directs a scholarship program geared toward at-risk youths in Omaha, said the new figures underscore that more must be done to make sure the second-generation children of Omaha’s Hispanic immigrants are getting the education and job skills they need to succeed. That will not only help them advance up the city’s economic ladder, he said, it will help them fill jobs critical to the entire region’s growth.
But that’s far easier said than done, Bird said. Growing up in poverty in itself stands as a major barrier to that kind of school and career success.
“When you look at these trend lines, it doesn’t bode well for our community, our workforce or everyone’s economic well-being,” he said. “This is everyone’s responsibility.”
To be sure, poverty is color-blind, hardly limited to those in racial minority groups. In fact, the majority of Nebraska and Omaha metro residents living in poverty are white.
In the metro area, black poverty has been a particular concern.
The Omaha area’s average black poverty rate of 32 percent in the five-year period from 2006-10 ranked as the 14th worst among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. More starkly, Omaha ranked fifth among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas in the disparity between its black and white poverty rates.
Conversely, until recently, Omaha’s growing Hispanic population was comparatively faring well. The metro area Hispanic poverty rate of 16.9 percent in 2000 was well below the rate for Hispanics nationally and ranked 17th best among the nation’s 100 biggest metro areas.
But over the last decade, the surveys on which such census figures are based have revealed a steady rise in Hispanic poverty in Nebraska and Omaha.
The current 27.6 percent rate in Omaha tops the U.S. rate and is now only 41st best among the nation’s big metro areas. It’s also now approaching the current 31.7 percent rate for Omaha-area blacks. Omaha’s current white poverty rate remains low, but it’s notable the rate has climbed since 2000 from 5.7 percent to 8.6 percent — a pace of increase that is only slightly below the increase seen among Hispanics over that time.
Nebraska’s Hispanic poverty trend mirrors the metro area’s. Statewide, Hispanic poverty has climbed from 20.4 percent in 2000 to 27.8 percent today.
“It’s a sizable shift,” said Drozd, of UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research. “Not only has it increased, it’s been a steady increase, and that trend hasn’t slowed.”
Social service officials and Latino advocates said the seeds for the poverty growth were likely sown over the last two decades by other economic and demographic forces.
For starters, the first-generation Hispanic workers who began migrating to Nebraska in the early 1990s clustered in many of the region’s lowest-wage jobs, including meatpacking, nonskilled construction trades and cleaning services. Not only is pay in those jobs low, such work often comes with few benefits.
“I think the structure of wages in the city is at least 50 percent of the story here,” Gouveia said. “Hispanic workers have a high level of labor force participation. But their wages are among the lowest.”
James Goddard, a poverty expert for Appleseed, agreed that the recent Hispanic poverty rise is likely rooted in low-wage jobs.
There’s also little question the Great Recession contributed mightily to the spike in Hispanic poverty. The major economic downturn, which reached Nebraska in 2008, particularly hit hard in meatpacking, manufacturing and construction — fields that employed large numbers of Hispanics. Some of those industries have yet to return to 2008 employment levels.
And even when employment did rebound, paychecks often didn’t. Figures from the Nebraska Department of Labor show that meatpacking wages for metro Omaha in 2013 were below 2010 levels. When adjusted for inflation, they had fallen over that time by more than 8 percent.
“Instead of seeing wages increasing every year, we saw them going down,” said Sergio Sosa of the Heartland Workers Center in South Omaha, which advocates for Hispanic workers and their families.
Sosa said another factor was a second wave of immigration that hit Omaha shortly after the recession did. Rather than originating in Mexico or South America, as during the first wave, these immigrants were coming from California, Arizona and other states where the recession was particularly crushing.
Indeed, recent data from the Pew Research Center in Washington indicated that while the number of undocumented immigrants fell nationally during the recession and its aftermath, numbers since 2009 have climbed in Nebraska — one of only seven states to see an increase over that time.
The depressive effects those new arrivals had on the low-wage job market may well be one reason that even as the nation in recent years emerged from the recession, Hispanic poverty rates in Omaha have continued to rise.
Changes in family structure also appear to be contributing to the poverty trend.
Higher percentages of the early immigrants to the Midlands were males living alone or as roommates in nonfamily households.
But in recent years there’s been a growing percentage of metro area Hispanic households made up of families with children. The biggest growth has been in family households headed by a single female — a structure proven across the racial spectrum to significantly increase the likelihood of poverty.
The number of family households headed by a single Hispanic woman within the Omaha area increased by 150 percent between 2000 and 2013. In the latest data, 17 percent of Hispanic households here were headed by single women, a figure now much closer to the national Hispanic average of 20 percent.
In all, Drozd said, about one-sixth of the recent spike in metro area Hispanic poverty can be attributed to such changes in family structure.
UNO’s Gouveia cautioned that although single-parent households are rising, the trend can be seen as more of a product of poverty than a cause of it. It’s known that children growing up in poverty are more likely to give birth as teens and out of wedlock.
The impact of deportations on family structure and poverty also shouldn’t be overlooked, Gouveia and others said. Deportations nationally in recent years have run at record levels that are more than double what they were a decade ago.
Not only do such deportations often pull wage earners out of families, Gouveia said, they disrupt home life in other ways, including making it more difficult for children to keep up in school.
The threat of such disruption has recently been reduced by President Barack Obama’s executive order that is expected to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, including more than 20,000 in Nebraska.
But there remain other political barriers to families’ economic success, Gouveia said. For example, Nebraska is the only state in the nation that bars giving driver’s licenses to the “dreamers”: young illegal immigrant adults who were able to obtain work permits under an earlier Obama immigration order. Gov. Dave Heineman ordered the State Department of Motor Vehicles to deny the licenses, arguing that the state should not provide public benefits to those in the country illegally.
Such government actions “have really pushed down the Latino community in many ways,” Gouveia said. “Their capacity to cope is being strangled by a climate that is increasingly punitive, not only economically but legally and politically.”
No matter its cause, the spike in poverty is raising red flags among leaders in the Hispanic community, social services providers and educators. Bird said poverty across all racial lines has proved to be a major barrier to school success, leading to higher dropout rates, difficulty seeking employment and more social costs to society.
Aubrey Mancuso, who works on poverty issues for Voices for Children in Nebraska, said the state needs to tackle the barriers that are causing families to fall into hardship.
“We should be working to address it and prepare these kids to be part of our future workforce,” she said.
The rising poverty figures come as no surprise to those who work at the Juan Diego Center in South Omaha. Operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha, the center provides a food pantry, other family support, immigration legal aid and micro-business training to Omaha Hispanics.
Juan Diego staffers see the families toiling in low-wage jobs, the increasing number of single-parent homes and the families who have recently lost wage earners to deportation.
“Every quarter when we look at our numbers, it’s more and more people in desperate situations,” said Jossy Rogers, the center’s immigration legal assistance director.
Maria Hernandez recently walked up to the front window of the Juan Diego Center food pantry toting her 1-year-old daughter, Sofia, who was snuggled in a fleecy pink hooded jumpsuit. Hernandez walked out a half-hour later with bags containing potatoes, hamburger, bread, cereal and canned goods.
A 36-year-old native of Mexico, Hernandez said through an interpreter that her husband makes about $400 a week as a janitor while she stays home to care for Sofia and their five other children. She said she’s grateful for the pantry, which she said was helping to keep food on the table.
Though life economically is a struggle now, Hernandez said she has high hopes for her children’s future. That’s one of the reasons she came to the United States in the first place, she said.
“I didn’t have opportunities where I grew up,” she said. “I want a better life for my children.”
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