Latino Studies Poverty
Miguel Díaz-Barriga, Havidán Rodríguez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0035


Latino/a poverty is once again a major topic of discussion in the national media and among policymakers. Research by the Pew Hispanic Center and others shows that the 2007–2009 Great Recession has hit Latinos/Latinas harder than other racial and ethnic groups. This economic crisis has exacerbated the socioeconomic status of Latinos/Latinas, resulting in higher unemployment and poverty rates and, in essence, adversely affecting some of the economic gains experienced by this group since the late 20th century. For example, the number of Latino/a children living in poverty has, for the first time in US history, surpassed that of whites. According to a 2011 US Census Bureau report that employs a “supplemental” measure of poverty (which includes medical expenses, tax credits, and non-cash government benefits such as food stamps), Latinos/Latinas now have the highest poverty rate in the nation at 28.2 percent, compared to 25.4 percent for African Americans. Even using the “official” measure of poverty, poverty among Latinos/Latinas remains extremely high at 26.7 percent, compared to 27.5 percent for African Americans (see Lopez and Cohn 2011 under Defining Poverty). This article provides a statistical overview of Latino/a poverty and then summarizes two major approaches for understanding its causes and impacts: the culture-of-poverty and neighborhood-effects theories. Both of these approaches have highly influenced public opinion and policymaking while generating a wide range of debate among academics. We then discuss the structural approaches to poverty and inequality that emerged from the work of Latino/a scholars during the 1970s and 1980s. These works characterize poverty as an outcome of internal colonialism and economic exploitation. Starting in the early 21st century, researchers broadened these structural approaches by applying concepts such as neoliberalism and transborder lives to understand how flows of capital and people have shaped economic inequality. Ethnographers have looked at how Latinos/Latinas mobilize family and community resources at the everyday level to cope with, and in some cases overcome, the negative effects of neoliberal policies and poverty. Given the devastating impact of the 2007–2009 Great Recession, it is clear that poverty will continue to define much of the Latino/a experience and that policymakers must develop new ways to alleviate poverty.

General Overviews

Rodríguez, et al. 2008 provides an overview of the Latino/a population that includes analysis of poverty rates and social mobility. This book utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Latinos/Latinas and how their contributions are changing the face of the United States. Research in Bean and Tienda 1990 and Portes and Bach 1985 pioneered statistical overviews of Latino/a poverty rates and other social indicators, including educational achievement and levels of assimilation. For specific Latino/a groups, Rodríguez 1991 and Acosta-Belén and Santiago 2006 analyze the socioeconomic data on Puerto Ricans, while Lobao and Saenz 2002 look at the economic and social well-being of Mexican Americans in both the Midwest and rural areas of Texas. Massey, et al. 2003 provides a comprehensive overview of Mexican immigration to the United States that debunks many commonly held perceptions, such as that Mexican immigrants are a drain on the economy. The authors argue that the failure of the US immigration policies has been particularly devastating to Mexican immigrants and has had an adverse socioeconomic impact on the economies of both the United States and Mexico. Menjívar 2000 focuses on the Salvadoran experience in the United States, especially on factors that affected their transition from El Salvador to the Mission District in San Francisco. Among some of the key issues that these authors explore are the diversity of the Latino/a population as well as the relationships among educational achievement, population density, segregation, income inequality, and economic mobility. Researchers have also extensively discussed methodological issues, such as strengths and limitations of census data and definitions of poverty, in producing demographic profiles of Latinos/Latinas.

  • Acosta-Belén, Edna, and Carlos E. Santiago. Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait. Latinos, Exploring Diversity and Change. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

    A contemporary and interdisciplinary view of demographic and socioeconomic realities of Puerto Ricans in the United States. The authors carefully review the history and political status of Puerto Rico and its impact on the socioeconomic mobility of mainland Puerto Ricans. The authors add to the existing literature by exploring the new voices and complexities of the Puerto Rican diaspora, as well as issues related to social and civil rights.

  • Bean, Frank D., and Marta Tienda. The Hispanic Population of the United States. Population of the United States in the 1980s: A Census Monograph Series. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1990.

    Using US Census data, the authors provide a demographic and socioeconomic profile of the Hispanic population over two decades (1970–1980). The authors challenge the appropriateness of “Hispanics” as an ethnic label, given the demographic and socioeconomic heterogeneity that characterizes this group. Limitations of census data and the different ways, from 1950 to 1980, that the census has enumerated the Latino/a population are also explored. Originally published in 1987.

  • Lobao, Linda, and Rogelio Saenz. “Spatial Inequality and Diversity as an Emerging Research Area.” Rural Sociology 67.4 (2002): 497–511.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1549-0831.2002.tb00116.x

    This article reviews an emerging subfield within sociology, focused on “spatial inequality.” The authors highlight some of the theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues associated with spatial inequality. The intersection of space, diversity, stratification, and inequality is particularly important in understanding the integration of Latinos/Latinas into the United States, their economic well-being, and the disparities in economic mobility between these immigrant groups. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003.

    A critical overview of the US-Mexico immigration policies and their outcomes, especially for Mexican immigrants to the United States. The authors challenge existing immigration policies in the United States and their failure to address the US-Mexico border issues and Mexico–US migration. The authors call for significant changes, if not a complete overhaul, of the current US-Mexico immigration policies.

  • Menjívar, Cecilia. Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

    This book provides an in-depth analysis of the experiences of Salvadoran immigrants from El Salvador to the Mission District in San Francisco. The social, economic, and political integration of these recent immigrant groups into the United States is explored, with a focus on how immigration policies, lack of resources, inequality, and poverty affect their economic integration and success.

  • Portes, Alejandro, and Robert L. Bach. Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

    An analysis of Cuban and Mexican immigrants’ experiences in the United States. The authors challenge the appropriateness of using the experiences of European immigrant groups to understand the challenges confronting Latino/a immigrants. Interviewing samples of Cuban and Mexican immigrants at the time of arrival to the United States (1973–1974), with additional follow-up interviews in 1976 and 1979, the authors provide data on labor market conditions and economic mobility.

  • Rodríguez, Clara E. Puerto Ricans: Born in the U.S.A. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.

    Rodríguez provides an overview of the Puerto Rican population in the United States, with a special focus on Puerto Ricans in New York City. A demographic, economic, and political profile of the second-largest Latino/a group. The colonial relationship between the island and the mainland is also explored, especially as it affected migration patterns and the economic well-being of Puerto Ricans.

  • Rodríguez, Havidán, Rogelio Saenz, and Cecilia Menjívar, eds. Latinas/os in the United States: Changing the Face of América. New York: Springer, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-71943-6

    In this edited volume, the authors explore Latinos/Latinas as a “mosaic” of people, representing different nationalities, histories, and cultures. The book focuses on the diversity of the Latino/a population in the United States and brings together an extensive set of data from diverse disciplines to explore issues such as immigration and incorporation, demographic patterns, health, crime, education, income and poverty, religion, ethnicity, culture, political mobilization, and unionization, among other topics.

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