They have come to the United States, they have come to Chicago, in great numbers to work, live and raise families. Some in the nation focus on ways to keep immigrants from illegally crossing the border. The Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, on the other hand, took a close look at the current state of what it calls “Latino Chicago.” Compiled with the help of its Metropolitan Chicago Initiative, directed by Sylvia Puente, its report, titled This is Home Now, presents a startling portrait of demographic change in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Puente and I recently sat down to talk about the results of the institute’s research. It was fascinating. The Hispanic population in the six-county Chicago area has quadrupled from 5 percent in 1970 to 20 percent last year; and it’s projected to grow to 39 percent by 2030. According to the Institute, the “Chicago region has added more than 1.3 million Latinos in the last 35 years — 96 percent of the region’s total population growth.”
More than 53 percent of the Chicago area Hispanics were born in the United States. Two-thirds of Latinos are U.S. citizens, including almost 90 percent of the children. Hispanics constitute the largest minority group in the Chicago area, and they are here to stay. This is their home now.
The report also notes that most of the growth in Hispanic population has been in the suburbs and more than half of all Hispanics live in the suburbs. Towns like Aurora, Waukegan, Melrose Park, Elgin, Joliet and many others have seen rapidly changing demographics. Hispanics there are becoming a real presence in the work force, among the merchants, in the schools and among the voters.
The key challenge posed in the report is to find ways to integrate Hispanic Americans into the community. Puente told me we must avoid the segregation and ethnic enclaves of the past by making these new residents feel welcome and getting to know them.
The changes charted by the Notre Dame study have many implications. Perhaps the most significant is economic. From 1990 to 2003, the growth in Hispanic workers was 1.3 million — which almost equaled the number of new jobs in the region. In 2002, there were 40,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in the state, earning $7.5 billion in revenue. In many areas, Hispanics have revived dying business districts by opening new stores, restaurants and services.
The report also found that income for Hispanics in the Chicago area has increased more rapidly than in other parts of the country. In the 1990s, median household income among Latinos rose from $30,200 to more than $44,300. Almost one-third of Hispanic households have an income of $60,000 or more; one in five have incomes exceeding $75,000.
Given the growing income, it’s not surprising that more than half of Hispanic families own their own home. Latinos are major contributors to the housing boom in the Chicago area: 46 percent of the growth in home ownership is due to Hispanics.
All of this means that Hispanics are a major economic force in the metropolitan area and will become even more so in the next two decades.
To help this growing community succeed and continue to make positive contributions to our larger community, we should focus on several key areas:
- Education — Schools, particularly in the suburbs, need to expand their bilingual and multicultural programs, along with career training.
- Health services — As one of the groups with the least coverage, more workers need health insurance; all children should be covered, (the governor’s All Kids program moves us closer to that goal).
- Business support — Latinos looking to start businesses can benefit from the availability of capital and financial training, along with assistance from local banks and business chambers.
- Language — Inclusion in the larger society depends greatly on the ability to speak, read and write English. Efforts to help both children (through school) and adults become fluent need to be readily available and effective.
We are all connected, and how well we address the issues posed by Hispanic population growth will determine the strength of our future.
Gery Chico is senior partner at the law firm of Chico and Nunes and former president of the Chicago Board of Education.