Investing in Latino Children and Youth

Feb. 14, 2022

Editors Lisa A. Gennetian and Marta Tienda

The United States is a rapidly aging nation.  Investments made today on children and youth that support and ensure equal opportunity to education and economic security will be foundational for shaping its future economic growth and health. Latinos[1] are the youngest major racial-ethnic group in the United States, with much of this population’s growth deriving from births in the U.S. rather than from net immigration. Across metrics of sheer size and growth, and underlying linguistic and diversity of origins, Hispanic children and youth will be influencing local and national economic and political landscapes for years to come. How can the United States capitalize on the strengths of its Hispanic children and youth, and families? What opportunities and risks do Latino children and youth face in securing their potential through educational completion, social integration, health and economic security?  

This volume of the ANNALS is novel in taking stock of the contemporary well-being of Latinx children and youth in the U.S. today, and using this foundation to look to the future and curating the forefront of knowledge to guide social investment.  Particular attention is paid to the role of public policy in enhancing or disrupting Latino children’s access to health care, quality schooling, household economic resources and stability, and, in nurturing positive and high quality family and child care environments.

Key insights from this volume of research include:

  • The return on investments in public infrastructure (schools) and related public goods (e.g. parks and neighborhood safety) will be especially high by supporting the healthy development of Latino children and youth. This volume’s chapters on geographic dispersion and housing, early education to post-secondary enrollment, and health bear out examples of circumstances in which Latino children and youth thrive (and, that the returns to public investments can be especially high).  The success of the Medicaid program and increased college enrollment rates are particular examples of exhibiting high returns on investment that not only improve labor market prospects and economic security, but also contribute to social integration.
  • The conditions in which Latino children start in life matter; capitalizing on the strengths that Latino families bring starting from birth of a child. Policy approaches such as broad diffusion and penetration of prenatal to early education programs within Hispanic communities, linguistically responsive curricula and practices, and flexible hours that complement (rather than conflict) with parental employment will generate long-term payoffs that harness these strengths, and offset disadvantages of low economic resources that many Latino children can experience (e.g. poverty, differential access to health and nutritional support, and inequitable access to early education, primary schooling and social supports).
  • The family and multiple generation centric norm and model in which many Latino children and youth are raised is contributing ingredient to children’s healthy development. Moving beyond single-guardian and/or mother – centric targeting of policy can unleash instrumental and social support for Latino children, and may also facilitate access to supports. For example, vital information about family support services, after school opportunities, health services, expanded nutrition programs, and tax credits could be communicated to extended family members, fathers and mothers, as a collective family benefit.
  • Many Latino children and youth grow up in poverty, yet rates of family employment are relatively high.  This conundrum points to the value of direct earnings subsidies that can generate not only higher income but also income stability, in ways that support children’s home lives. Labor-market oriented policies that span strategies improving the quality of parental work, such as paid sick leave, safe work conditions, and predictable work schedules, further generate environments that support Latino children’s development via parents’ physical and mental health.  In addition to reducing health care costs and preserving economic productivity, investments in parents’ working conditions also spillover to family life and the quality of co-parenting in ways that positively reinforce rather than undermine family stability and well-being.
  • Anti-immigrant sentiment and local immigration enforcement actions have far reaching negative unintended consequences especially on the well-being of Latino children and youth (nearly all of whom at U.S. citizens).  Chilling effects increase fear and anxiety that is especially pernicious to family well-being and dampen Latinos’ willingness to seek public services for their children for which they are eligible (like access to medical care, food supplements, housing assistance, and pre-school).  Such chilling effects disrupt receipt of cash supports (including emergency economic supports such as those available during the pandemic); and, long-standing successful anti-poverty policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.  Reducing administrative barriers and simplifying the navigation of publicly available services (e.g. documentation requirements, language translation and literacy demands) also harness family agency in accessing safety net programs.
  • Latino children and youth reside in resilient families and communities, but also have been exceptionally vulnerable to COVID-19.  Hispanic children’s high risk of exposure to COVID-19 reflects both the segregation of their households in areas of overcrowded housing that became early “hot spots” for COVID-19, and their parents’ overrepresentation in “essential” jobs (e.g. health care, food preparation, and building maintenance). Poverty and social isolation due to the pandemic also increased adverse consequences to Latino youth’s physical and mental health.  Hispanic children’s pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity, may have increased their risks of severe COVID-19. The expansion and acceptance of tele-health provision of care, the simplification of social benefits administration (such as the creation of a general portal to receive pandemic stimulus checks that does not hinge on prior or current tax filings), and the social connectedness of Latino communities and families serve as buffers and act as springboards to recovery that should be nourished.

    [1] Reflecting the fluidity of labels, Hispanic, Latino/a and Latinx are used across and within articles, often interchangeably.