Latino Baby Boomers a New and Unexpected Challenge

In 2000, the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, included about 80 million people. This has been well-known. Far less known is the fact that, of this group, about eight million are Latinos. Moreover, the older Latino population is expected to triple, growing from 6 percent of older adults in 2003 to 18 percent in 2050.

“Next year will see the first wave hitting age 65, the traditional retirement age,” says Chon Noriega, Ph.D., a professor of film, television and digital media, as well as director of the Chicano Studies Research Center, University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). “This represents a tsunami impacting Social Security and society at large, a phenomenon which has never really been taken into account before.”

“This is the first time ever in this county that anyone has taken an interest in the baby boomer cohort for Latinos,” says Fernando Torres-Gil, Ph.D., associate dean, UCLA School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging. Torres-Gil is referring to the research conducted by him and his colleagues at UCLA, culminating in a symposium on May 11, 2010. This article is drawn from interviews with three of the participants as well as the group’s policy papers.

One clear indication of the unappreciated significance of this surge in the aging Latino population, says Carlos Haro, Ph.D., assistant director emeritus, Chicano Studies Research Center, comes from the leaders of 10 prominent groups and organizations surveyed between November 2009 and January 2010. These ranged from a health service provider to immigrant and legal rights groups to community development associations, associations of government officials and organizations that primarily serving aging populations.

While all the groups except one expressed the importance of caring for the Latino baby boomers, Haro says, “Only four had a strategic focus on serving the senior population, and only one was specifically dedicated to serving aging Latinos.” Haro adds that just three offered programs for wealth building and financial security.

Why addressing the needs of this group is important, Torres-Gil says, is that “in 20 years, Latinos will be the largest minority, ahead of African- Americans, and Latinos are already the largest group in cities such as Chicago, New York, Miami and San Antonio.” Furthermore, Torres-Gil reports, Latinos have a higher life expectancy than Whites, 79 to 80 years as opposed to 77 to 78. African-Americans live a lower average lifespan, to about 71, while Asian-Americans tend to live a little longer, approaching 81 to 82 years.

Not all Latinos are the same, of course, in life expectancy as well as many other areas. For instance, Puerto Ricans have the lowest, Mexicans are in the middle, and Cubans have the highest. An irony in that the dictatorship takes away freedom but provides universal health care.

Asked what accounts for the generally higher life expectancy of Latinos in terms of Whites, those interviewed indicate they can’t say for sure but suggest it might be because of a more spiritual orientation or better family support. They also add that the longer Latino families are in this country, by the third or fourth generation, the more they assimilate to this culture, the more their health deteriorates.

Fernando Torres-Hill

Here are some of the reasons UCLA researchers consider many aging Latinos to be a population at risk. They often tend to have minimal pension and health care benefits or no benefits at all, a result of their unmet needs in regard to education. In 2006, for example, only 59 percent of Latinos over age 25 had obtained a high school diploma, compared to 90 percent of non-Latino Whites.

This lack of education is a key problem, maintains Haro. “Many Latinos were not prepared to go into professions or take other career paths which would provide for financial security in later years,” Haro says. “So they don’t now have the pension plans and health benefits others have. They have had to go into the work force in low-paying and nonskilled jobs, with no benefits. So who is going to pay the consequences now that they are beginning to retire?”

Adds Noriega, “A general conclusion at the conference was the urgent need to increase educational attainment among school-age Latinos. In California, one-half of the kids under 6 are Latino. If you ignore the educational needs of half the population, this will adversely impact our society as a whole.” Moreover, Noriega continues, as large as the aging Latino population is, there is a much larger and ever-growing group under 40. The latter will be paying into the always-threatened Social Security fund, but, with less education and therefore less income, they will have that much less to pay into it. “The dynamic here is that Latinos are overrepresented by those paying into Social Security and underrepresented by those receiving it.”

Another relevant statistic is that Latinos have the lowest level of pension coverage; in 2001, only 25 percent participated in an employer-provided pension plan, compared to 50 percent of the overall work force. Consequently, older Latinos have a higher dependency on Social Security than does any other ethnic/racial group in the U.S. Social Security benefits provide 44 percent of their total income.

This translates directly into hardship. Researchers found that in California, Latino elders who lived alone or with only a spouse had the highest rates of economic insecurity among all elders age 65 and older. About three-fourths of Latino elders who live alone and almost half of  those who live with only a spouse cannot cover their basic costs of living. Nearly half-a-million older adults living alone in the state lacked sufficient income to pay for a minimum level of housing, food, health care, transportation and other basic needs.

Although an initial impression might be that Latinos in general are critically disadvantaged, the researchers find that this assumption is “clearly flawed,” for certain groups of Latino baby boomers are relatively well off. Nonetheless, demographic and economic characteristics paint a bleak picture for two segments of this demographic: noncitizens and those born in U.S. territories. These represent a bleak picture, for they will be under considerable financial strain as they move into their retirement years. The overall composition of the baby boomer generation has changed over the past half-century. Despite the inevitable factors of death and emigration, it has grown from about 76 million to about 80 million individuals, again, about eight million of whom are Latinos. This growth is attributable to immigration as a persistent force throughout the 20th century. The immigration that has bolstered the number of baby boomers has also created four categories of individuals. Those born as U.S. citizens can be classified as: 1) those born either in the 50 United States plus the District of Columbia or abroad to a U.S. parent; or 2) those who were born in a U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico, Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands. Immigrants fall into one of two additional categories: 3) those who are naturalized U.S. citizens; or 4) those who are not U.S. citizens.

The UCLA analysis shows that in 2000, Latino boomers born in the U.S. were usually of Mexican (60 percent) or Puerto Rican (12 percent) origin, and those who were naturalized citizens were likely to be of Mexican (50 percent) or Cuban (1 percent) origin. Latino boomers born in a U.S. territory were largely of Puerto Rican origin (95 percent). Most noncitizen Latino boomers were of Mexican origin (61 percent); the rest were of various Latin American and Spanish origins.

Latino boomers generally had less education than non-Latino boomers, with noncitizens having the lowest education levels. Latino boomers also had lower levels of English ability than non-Latino boomers. Almost all U.S.-born Latino boomers reported being fluent in English (88 percent), compared to about half of naturalized citizens (44 percent) or those born in U.S. territories (56 percent). Noncitizen Latino boomers reported low rates of English fluency (21 percent) and were far more likely to be linguistically isolated (39 percent) than other Latino groups.

Latino boomers typically lived in larger households than non-Latino boomers (an average of 4.4 persons versus 3.2 persons) and were far more likely to live in large, multifamily buildings. This likelihood increased for noncitizen Latinos and Latinos born in U.S. territories. In addition, noncitizens were one-third as likely as Latinos born in the U.S. or its territories to live alone or with only a spouse; naturalized citizens were half as likely to live in this situation. Latino boomers were split almost evenly between owning and renting, whereas non-Latino boomers were much more likely to own their homes.

A majority of U.S.-born and naturalized Latino citizens owned theirhomes (67 percent and 65 percent, respectively), but most noncitizens and citizens born in U.S. territories were renters (57 percent and 55 percent, respectively). Latino boomers also spent more of their household income on costs associated with housing. Noncitizens and citizens born in the U.S. territories spent the largest proportion of their income on housing, with about one-third of each group spending more than 30 percent. Latino baby boomers were less likely than non-Latino boomers to have incomes above the poverty line. Within the Latino boomer population, citizens born in the U.S. and naturalized citizens had the highest average incomes, followed by those born in U.S. territories and noncitizens. Latino boomers were less likely than non-Latino boomers to receive any form of income (85 percent vs. 91 percent) and were less likely to be employed (64 percent vs. 78 percent). Fewer Latino than non-Latino boomers received income from wages, self-employment, interest, pensions and other sources while more Latino boomers received income from public assistance.

Chon Noriega

The UCLA researchers found that Latinos rely on influential national and regional advocacy groups and service organizations to provide leadership and support on their behalf. These groups and organizations have had a substantial impact on a number of issues important to the Latino population in areas such as education, health, civil rights, affirmative action and immigration. They have protected Latinos’ rights and helped bring them into the mainstream of American political and socioeconomic life. But given the precarious position of Latino baby boomers and the current political debate about health care reform and the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, it has become increasingly important for advocacy groups and service organizations to address issues that have a bearing on the economic security of Latinos.

The UCLA researchers conclude with the following recommendations: All groups and organizations should be aware of the demographic shifts that are affecting U.S. society.

As information and data regarding the growing number of Latino baby boomers become available, groups and organizations should become better informed about the financial vulnerability of this population. Groups and organizations should determine how Latino baby boomers have relevance to their missions and should identify the needs that they can address.

Groups and organizations should then design programs that will meet the needs that have been identified. Programs should include those that can help Latino elders ensure their financial security through retirement programs, individual savings and home ownership. As part of their advocacy efforts, groups and organizations should also seek to strengthen Social Security by supporting reform that maintains adequate benefits and economic security in retirement.