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July 31, 2013

Hispanic Economic Mobility Through Community, Not Government

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If there’s one thing on which America’s conservative and progressive policy wonks can agree, it’s that education is key to an individual’s ability to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

This bipartisanship extends to the Hispanic community and has been boosted by promotional or public service campaigns.

What’s more, public opinion polls confirm that the majority of the Hispanic population, the fastest-growing demographic, understands that more education opens the doors to better employment prospects.

But what about other factors that could help Hispanics move up the socioeconomic ladder?

According to a new study, geography plays a big role in determining economic mobility. So do family structure and civic engagement — including participation in religious and community groups.

Similar observations are made in an analysis by Stuart M. Butler, a colleague at The Heritage Foundation, who writes about three forms of capital: social, human and financial.

“Strong, trusted, and positive organizations, such as churches and volunteer groups are very helpful,” Dr. Butler writes in the journal National Affairs. “A positive community network and culture can reinforce the positive effects of families and can emphasize moral expectations and inculcate self-improving behavior.  They can also help compensate for a less functioning family, instilling in a child the habits essential for success even if his parents do not.”

This last point is particularly instructive when considering that more and more Hispanic children are being born outside marriage and raised in a single-parent home.   Rather than turning to the government, Hispanics ought to consider looking to their surrounding community first and the value of social and human capital.

Unfortunately, President Obama and his progressive allies prefer a bigger and more generous government — even if it is to the detriment of the very folks it is intended to help.

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services was forced to rescind its shameless promotional efforts to glamorize nutrition assistance programs in the form of telenovela-style advertisements on local Spanish-language radio.   Rather than portraying government assistance as temporary, the ads clearly sought to encourage as many people as possible to take advantage of the government’s generosity.

Unfortunately, proponents of this approach seem to be succeeding, considering the startling fact that over 101 million Americans received food aid last year. That’s one of every three Americans.

Permanently depending on government is no way to climb the socioeconomic ladder.  Decades of generous federal spending has done little to lift people out of poverty.  Policymakers should promote personal responsibility and self-reliance to reduce poverty and promote economic mobility.

And when economic difficulties occur, we ought to consider looking to our neighborhoods and local civic organizations before looking to government.   Local, non-government institutions such as charities, faith-based groups and churches understand the local scene best and are equipped to counsel and minister not only to material need but also spiritual and emotional needs.

If we’re serious about reducing poverty, we ought to be concerned not only with ensuring a quality education for all but also promoting strong families and civic engagement.

For policymakers, the challenge is to provide a vision beyond the traps of state and federal poverty programs and help initiate a national conversation on economic mobility.

- Israel Ortega is manager of strategic initiatives at The Heritage Foundation and editor in chief of Libertad.org, the think tank’s Spanish-language website.

First appeared in NBC Latino

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