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So much for the myth Latinos are a drain on local economy

Updated: May 9, 2012 10:01AM

It would be so easy to just crow in this column.

Because a report released Wednesday by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies substantiates with solid numbers what I have said all along: Latinos just want a better quality of life for their families and are willing to do the hard work that it takes to attain it.

I knew that from what I’ve witnessed: the woman selling tamales from a curbside cart with snow piled around her; busboys riding worn-out bikes (before pedaling became “cool”) to their Loop gigs; the dad and son riding in a rundown pickup through alleys in search of scrap metal.

Yet in the heated debate about immigration reform, time and again I’ve heard it said that Latinos are a drain on our government services.

The Institute’s report refutes that notion big time locally and dispels other myths that fuel anti-immigrant sentiment. Some 1.8 million Latinos live in metropolitan Chicago — that’s 22 percent of the population, according to the report. The study goes on to say that those Latinos — the U.S. citizens as well as the undocumented — add $5 billion in tax revenues, while $3.9 billion is spent on providing public services (education, public safety, health care) to them. That results in them adding $1.2 billion more in tax revenues than they use.

The study also determined that Latinos make up more and more of the local work force. In 1980 that figure was 7 percent, increasing to 20 percent by 2009 and projected to be at 25 percent by 2015. That’s some kind of growth.

Now, not all the news was good. Unemployment among Latinos went from 7.2 percent in 2008 to 12.1 in 2009, a 68 percent hike, according to the report and the largest increase of any group. And for those who are employed, the work is largely in lower-paying jobs.

Also, the report doesn’t differentiate legal Latinos from the undocumented. Some conservatives claim that their beef isn’t with all Latinos, just those who did not come here through legal channels.

Still, this report shows the enormous impact Latinos have on our local economy and how it will continue to grow. It is in the shared best interest of Latinos and our region’s economy that they prosper.

The largest portion of public services spent on Latinos is for education, according to the report. (That’s not a surprise since demographic figures find Latinos as an ethnicity tend to be younger.) One could look at that two ways, according to Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum. Yes, it may be major spending, but “it’s really an investment in their future and their potential to contribute to the region,” said Puente. We’re not educating Latinos just so that they can do well personally, but so that our entire local economy can grow with them.

Before the grumbling begins about educating “outsiders,” here’s another interesting statistic from the report: 92 percent of Latino children here are U.S. born. The growth isn’t coming from migration; it’s from making babies in the good ol’ USA.

Puente pointed out that before this report we lacked the in-depth analysis of Latinos’ impact on the economy. It’s helpful for a variety of reasons, including clearing up misconceptions about Latinos. “This report provides additional data to rational, reasonable people who want to understand how the nation’s face is changing,” she said.

Changing, and as the numbers show, not in a bad way at all.

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