In the summer of 2006, New Mexico economist Gerry Bradley and his colleagues were baffled by housing construction data. “Too many houses were being built. We’d never seen anything like it," he says. “It looked like something that wasn’t going to continue.”
And it didn’t. The housing bubble burst, and New Mexico lost roughly 22,700 of its 72,500 construction and manufacturing jobs. They disappeared between December 2007 and March 2010, according to research Bradley did for New Mexico Voices for Children.
He also found that the recession hit Hispanics the hardest. In fact, Hispanic unemployment in New Mexico has increased 6.2 percent since the recession began. Caucasians in the state, however, saw their unemployment rate (which was lower to begin with) go up only 2.6 percent.
The reason? Bradley suggests that, for one, many Hispanics work in construction and manufacturing industries, which are often subject to market fluctuations.
He’s right, according a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau between 2006 and 2008. The Census Bureau found that more than 16 percent of Hispanics said they worked in “construction, extraction, maintenance and repair occupations.” That’s 4 percent above the statewide average.
“The story that I’m telling is that we have Hispanics concentrated in those industries because of their level of education,” Bradley says. “We’ve got to change that in order for the next recession not to slam the Hispanic population the way that they’ve been slammed by this recession.”
Bradley says improved education could be a solution. Legislation like the Hispanic Education Act, which went into effect in New Mexico Thursday, July 1, is a step in the right direction, he says.
The discrepancy between Hispanic and Caucasian achievement was measured in reading and math scores. The graduation rate for the class of 2008 in New Mexico was about 56 percent for Hispanics and about 71 percent for Caucasians. These stats factored into Gov. Bill Richardson's decision to sign the HEA act in March.
“We’ve made progress in increasing student achievement statewide, but the persistent achievement gaps our Hispanic students struggle with are unacceptable," Richardson said in a news release.
The act creates an education liaison and a council that will focus on Hispanic students in the state. It was a controversial bill during the 2010 legislative session. Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones (R-Albuquerque) said she didn't see what the bill would truly change. Rep. Nora Espinoza (R-Roswell) said all students should be educated equally, "not one above the other." Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert (R-Corrales) said the act reinstated racial boundaries and created a new generation of racism. "Listening to these discussions is like regressing back to the '60s."
The Census Bureau’s survey found that more than 30 percent of the state's Hispanics had only achieved a high school diploma or its equivalent. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, says the Hispanic Education Act will help.
He says employment and education problems feed each other. “Given those unemployment rates,” Rael-Gálvez says, “it’s clear that it’s going to be harder for Hispanic families who are unemployed to simply put bread on the table, which correlates to greater challenges for that family as a whole.”