Hispanic Family Values?
Runaway illegitimacy is creating a new U.S. underclass.
Heather Mac Donald
Unless the life chances of children raised by single mothers suddenly improve, the explosive growth of the U.S. Hispanic population over the next couple of decades does not bode well for American social stability. Hispanic immigrants bring near–Third World levels of fertility to America, coupled with what were once thought to be First World levels of illegitimacy. (In fact, family breakdown is higher in many Hispanic countries than here.) Nearly half of the children born to Hispanic mothers in the U.S. are born out of wedlock, a proportion that has been increasing rapidly with no signs of slowing down. Given what psychologists and sociologists now know about the much higher likelihood of social pathology among those who grow up in single-mother households, the Hispanic baby boom is certain to produce more juvenile delinquents, more school failure, more welfare use, and more teen pregnancy in the future.
The government social-services sector has already latched onto this new client base; as the Hispanic population expands, so will the demands for a larger welfare state. Since conservative open-borders advocates have yet to acknowledge the facts of Hispanic family breakdown, there is no way to know what their solution to it is. But they had better come up with one quickly, because the problem is here—and growing.
The dimensions of the Hispanic baby boom are startling. The Hispanic birthrate is twice as high as that of the rest of the American population. That high fertility rate—even more than unbounded levels of immigration—will fuel the rapid Hispanic population boom in the coming decades. By 2050, the Latino population will have tripled, the Census Bureau projects. One in four Americans will be Hispanic by mid-century, twice the current ratio. In states such as California and Texas, Hispanics will be in the clear majority. Nationally, whites will drop from near 70 percent of the total population in 2000 to just half by 2050. Hispanics will account for 46 percent of the nation’s added population over the next two decades, the Pew Hispanic Center reports.
But it’s the fertility surge among unwed Hispanics that should worry policymakers. Hispanic women have the highest unmarried birthrate in the country—over three times that of whites and Asians, and nearly one and a half times that of black women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Every 1,000 unmarried Hispanic women bore 92 children in 2003 (the latest year for which data exist), compared with 28 children for every 1,000 unmarried white women, 22 for every 1,000 unmarried Asian women, and 66 for every 1,000 unmarried black women. Forty-five percent of all Hispanic births occur outside of marriage, compared with 24 percent of white births and 15 percent of Asian births. Only the percentage of black out-of-wedlock births—68 percent—exceeds the Hispanic rate. But the black population is not going to triple over the next few decades.
As if the unmarried Hispanic birthrate weren’t worrisome enough, it is increasing faster than among other groups. It jumped 5 percent from 2002 to 2003, whereas the rate for other unmarried women remained flat. Couple the high and increasing illegitimacy rate of Hispanics with their higher overall fertility rate, and you have a recipe for unstoppable family breakdown.
The only bright news in this demographic disaster story concerns teen births. Overall teen childbearing in the U.S. declined for the 12th year in a row in 2003, having dropped by more than a third since 1991. Yet even here, Hispanics remain a cause for concern. The rate of childbirth for Mexican teenagers, who come from by far the largest and fastest-growing immigrant population, greatly outstrips every other group. The Mexican teen birthrate is 93 births per every 1,000 girls, compared with 27 births for every 1,000 white girls, 17 births for every 1,000 Asian girls, and 65 births for every 1,000 black girls. To put these numbers into international perspective, Japan’s teen birthrate is 3.9, Italy’s is 6.9, and France’s is 10. Even though the outsize U.S. teen birthrate is dropping, it continues to inflict unnecessary costs on the country, to which Hispanics contribute disproportionately.
To grasp the reality behind those numbers, one need only talk to people working on the front lines of family breakdown. Social workers in Southern California, the national epicenter for illegal Hispanic immigrants and their progeny, are in despair over the epidemic of single parenting. Not only has illegitimacy become perfectly acceptable, they say, but so has the resort to welfare and social services to cope with it.
Dr. Ana Sanchez delivers babies at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the city of Orange, California, many of them to Hispanic teenagers. To her dismay, they view having a child at their age as normal. A recent patient just had her second baby at age 17; the baby’s father is in jail. But what is “most alarming,” Sanchez says, is that the “teens’ parents view having babies outside of marriage as normal, too. A lot of the grandmothers are single as well; they never married, or they had successive partners. So the mom sends the message to her daughter that it’s okay to have children out of wedlock.”
Sanchez feels almost personally involved in the problem: “I’m Hispanic myself. I wish I could find out what the Asians are doing right.” She guesses that Asian parents’ passion for education inoculates their children against teen pregnancy and the underclass trap. “Hispanics are not picking that up like the Asian kids,” she sighs.
Conservatives who support open borders are fond of invoking “Hispanic family values” as a benefit of unlimited Hispanic immigration. Marriage is clearly no longer one of those family values. But other kinds of traditional Hispanic values have survived—not all of them necessarily ideal in a modern economy, however. One of them is the importance of having children early and often. “It’s considered almost a badge of honor for a young girl to have a baby,” says Peggy Schulze of Chrysalis House, an adoption agency in Fresno. (Fresno has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in California, typical of the state’s heavily Hispanic farm districts.) It is almost impossible to persuade young single Hispanic mothers to give up their children for adoption, Schulze says. “The attitude is: ‘How could you give away your baby?’ I don’t know how to break through.”
The most powerful Hispanic family value—the tight-knit extended family—facilitates unwed child rearing. A single mother’s relatives often step in to make up for the absence of the baby’s father. I asked Mona, a 19-year-old parishioner at St. Joseph’s Church in Santa Ana, California, if she knew any single mothers. She laughed: “There are so many I can’t even name them.” Two of her cousins, aged 25 and 19, have children without having husbands. The situation didn’t seem to trouble this churchgoer too much. “They’ll be strong enough to raise them. It’s totally okay with us,” she said. “We’re very close; we’re there to support them. They’ll do just fine.”
As Mona’s family suggests, out-of-wedlock child rearing among Hispanics is by no means confined to the underclass. The St. Joseph’s parishioners are precisely the churchgoing, blue-collar workers whom open-borders conservatives celebrate. Yet this community is as susceptible as any other to illegitimacy. Fifty-year-old Irma and her husband, Rafael, came legally from Mexico in the early 1970s. Rafael works in a meatpacking plant in Brea; they have raised five husky boys who attend church with them. Yet Irma’s sister—a homemaker like herself, also married to a factory hand—is now the grandmother of two illegitimate children, one by each daughter. “I saw nothing in the way my sister and her husband raised her children to explain it,” Irma says. “She gave them everything.” One of the fathers of Irma’s young nieces has four other children by a variety of different mothers. His construction wages are being garnished for child support, but he is otherwise not involved in raising his children.
The fathers of these illegitimate children are often problematic in even more troubling ways. Social workers report that the impregnators of younger Hispanic women are with some regularity their uncles, not necessarily seen as a bad thing by the mother’s family. Alternatively, the father may be the boyfriend of the girl’s mother, who then continues to stay with the grandmother. Older men seek out young girls in the belief that a virgin cannot get pregnant during her first intercourse, and to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
The tradition of starting families young and expand- ing them quickly can come into conflict with more modern American mores. Ron Storm, the director of the Hillview Acres foster-care home in Chino, tells of a 15-year-old girl who was taken away from the 21-year-old father of her child by a local child-welfare department. The boyfriend went to jail, charged with rape. But the girl’s parents complained about the agency’s interference, and eventually both the girl and her boyfriend ended up going back to Mexico, presumably to have more children. “At 15, as the Quinceañera tradition celebrates, you’re considered ready for marriage,” says Storm. Or at least for childbearing; the marriage part is disappearing.
But though older men continue to take advantage of younger women, the age gap between the mother and the father of an illegitimate child is quickly closing. Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties tries to teach young fathers to take responsibility for their children. “We’re seeing a lot more 13- and 14-year-old fathers,” says Kathleen Collins, v.p. of health education. The day before we spoke, Scott Montoya, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, arrested two 14-year-old boys who were bragging about having sexual relations with a cafeteria worker from an Olive Garden restaurant. “It’s now all about getting girls pregnant when you’re age 15,” he says. One 18-year-old in the Planned Parenthood fathers’ program has two children by two different girls and is having sex with five others, says health worker Jason Warner. “A lot of [the adolescent sexual behavior] has to do with getting respect from one’s peers,” observes Warner.
Normally, the fathers, of whatever age, take off. “The father may already be married or in prison or doing drugs,” says Amanda Gan, director of operations for Toby’s House, a maternity home in Dana Point, California. Mona, the 19-year-old parishioner at St. Joseph’s Church, says that the boys who impregnated her two cousins are “nowhere to be found.” Her family knows them but doesn’t know if they are working or in jail.
Two teen mothers at the Hillview Acres home represent the outer edge of Hispanic family dysfunction. Yet many aspects of their lives are typical. Though these teenagers’ own mothers were unusually callous and irresponsible, the social milieu in which they were raised is not unusual.
Irene’s round, full face makes her look younger than her 14 years, certainly too young to be a mother. But her own mother’s boyfriend repeatedly forced sex on her, with the mother’s acquiescence. The result was Irene’s baby, Luz. Baby Luz has an uncle her own age, Irene’s new 13-month-old brother. Like Irene, Irene’s mother had her first child at 14, and produced five more over the next 16 years, all of whom went into foster care. Irene’s father committed suicide before she was old enough to know him. The four fathers of her siblings are out of the picture, too: one of them, the father of her seven-year-old brother and five-year-old sister, was deported back to Mexico after he showed up drunk for a visit with his children, in violation of his probation conditions.
Irene is serene and articulate—remarkably so, considering that in her peripatetic early life in Orange County she went to school maybe twice a week. She likes to sing and to read books that are sad, she says, especially books by Dave Pelzer, a child-abuse victim who has published three best-selling memoirs about his childhood trauma. She says she will never get married: “I don’t want another man in my life. I don’t want that experience again.”
Eighteen-year-old Jessica at least escaped rape, but her family experiences were bad enough. The large-limbed young woman, whose long hair is pulled back tightly from her heart-shaped face, grew up in the predominantly Hispanic farming community of Indio in the Coachella Valley. She started “partying hard” in fifth grade, she says—at around the same time that her mother, separated from her father, began using drugs and going clubbing. By the eighth grade, Jessica and her mother were drinking and smoking marijuana together. Jessica’s family had known her boyfriend’s family since she was four; when she had her first child by him—she was 14 and he was 21—her mother declared philosophically that she had always known that it would happen. “It was okay with her, so long as he continued to give her drugs.”
Jessica originally got pregnant to try to clean up her life, she says. “I knew what I was doing was not okay, so having a baby was a way for me to stop doing what I was doing. In that sense, the baby was planned.” She has not used drugs since her first pregnancy, though she occasionally drinks. After her daughter was born, she went to live with her boyfriend in a filthy trailer without plumbing; they scrounged food from dumpsters, despite the income from his illegal drug business. They planned to get married, but by the time she got pregnant again with a son, “We were having a lot of problems. We’d be holding hands, and he’d be looking at other girls. I didn’t want him to touch me.” Eventually, the county welfare agency removed her and put her in foster care with her two children.
Both Jessica and her caddish former boyfriend illustrate the evanescence of the celebrated Hispanic “family values.” Her boyfriend’s family could not be more traditional. Two years ago, Jessica went back to Mexico to celebrate her boyfriend’s parents’ 25th wedding anniversary and the renewal of their wedding vows. Jessica’s own mother got married at 15 to her father, who was ten years her senior. Her father would not let his wife work; she was a “stay-at-home wife,” Jessica says. But don’t blame the move to the U.S. for the behavior of younger generations; the family crack-up is happening even faster in Latin America.
Jessica’s mother may have been particularly negligent, but Jessica’s experiences are not so radically different from those of her peers. “Everybody’s having babies now,” she says. “The Coachella Valley is filled with girls’ pregnancies. Some girls live with their babies’ dads; they consider them their husbands.” These cohabiting relationships rarely last, however, and a new cohort of fatherless children goes out into the world.
Despite the strong family support, the prevalence of single parenting among Hispanics is producing the inevitable slide into the welfare system. “The girls aren’t marrying the guys, so they are married to the state,” Dr. Sanchez observes. Hispanics now dominate the federal Women, Infants, and Children free food program; Hispanic enrollment grew over 25 percent from 1996 to 2002, while black enrollment dropped 12 percent and white enrollment dropped 6.5 percent. Illegal immigrants can get WIC and other welfare programs for their American-born children. If Congress follows President Bush’s urging and grants amnesty to most of the 11 million illegal aliens in the country today, expect the welfare rolls to skyrocket as the parents themselves become eligible.
Amy Braun works for Mary’s Shelter, a home for young single mothers who are homeless or in crisis, in Orange County, California. It has become “culturally okay” for the Hispanic population to use the shelter and welfare system, Braun says. A case manager at a program for pregnant homeless women in the city of Orange observes the same acculturation to the social-services sector, with its grievance mongering and sense of victimhood. “I’ll have women in my office on their fifth child, when the others have already been placed in foster care,” says Anita Berry of Casa Teresa. “There’s nothing shameful about having multiple children that you can’t care for, and to be pregnant again, because then you can blame the system.”
The consequences of family breakdown are now being passed down from one generation to the next, in an echo of the black underclass. “The problems are deeper and wider,” says Berry. “Now you’re getting the second generation of foster care and group home residents. The dysfunction is multigenerational.”
The social-services complex has responded with barely concealed enthusiasm to this new flood of clients. As Hispanic social problems increase, so will the government sector that ministers to them. In July, a New York Times editorial, titled young latinas and a cry for help, pointed out the elevated high school dropout rates and birthrates among Hispanic girls. A quarter of all Latinas are mothers by the age of 20, reported the Times. With the usual melodrama that accompanies the pitch for more government services, the Times designated young Latinas as “endangered” in the same breath that it disclosed that they are one of the fastest-growing segments of the population. “The time to help is now,” said the Times—by which it means ratcheting up the taxpayer-subsidized social-work industry.
In response to the editorial, Carmen Barroso, regional director of International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region, proclaimed in a letter to the editor the “urgent need for health care providers, educators and advocates to join the sexual and reproductive health movement to ensure the fundamental right to services for young Latinas.”
Wherever these “fundamental rights” might come from, Barroso’s call nevertheless seems quite superfluous, since there is no shortage of taxpayer-funded “services” for troubled Latinas—or Latinos. The schools in California’s San Joaquin Valley have day care for their students’ babies, reports Peggy Schulze of Chrysalis House. “The girls get whatever they need—welfare, medical care.” Advocates for young unwed moms in New York’s South Bronx are likewise agitating for more day-care centers in high schools there, reports El Diario/La Prensa. A bill now in Congress, the Latina Adolescent Suicide Prevention Act, aims to channel $10 million to “culturally competent” social agencies to improve the self-esteem of Latina girls and to provide “support services” to their families and friends if they contemplate suicide.
The trendy “case management” concept, in which individual “cases” become the focal point around which a solar system of social workers revolves, has even reached heavily Hispanic elementary and middle schools. “We have a coordinator, who brings in a collaboration of agencies to deal with the issues that don’t allow a student to meet his academic goals, such as domestic violence or drugs,” explains Sylvia Rentria, director of the Family Resource Center at Berendo Middle School in Los Angeles. “We can provide individual therapy.” Rentria offers the same program at nearby Hoover Elementary School for up to 100 students.
This July, Rentria launched a new session of Berendo’s Violence Intervention Program for parents of children who are showing signs of gang involvement and other antisocial behavior. Ghady M., 55 and a “madre soltera” (single mother), like most of the mothers in the program, has been called in because her 16-year-old son, Christian, has been throwing gang signs at school, cutting half his classes, and ending up in the counseling office every day. The illegal Guatemalan is separated from her partner, who was “muy malo,” she says; he was probably responsible for her many missing teeth. (The detectives in the heavily Hispanic Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, which includes the Berendo school, spend inordinate amounts of time on domestic violence cases.) Though Ghady used to work in a factory on Broadway in downtown L.A.— often referred to as Little Mexico City—she now collects $580 in welfare payments and $270 in food stamps for her two American-born children.
Christian is a husky smart aleck in a big white T-shirt; his fashionably pomaded hair stands straight up. He goes to school but doesn’t do homework, he grins; and though he is not in a gang, he says, he has friends who are. Keeping Ghady and Christian company at the Violence Intervention Program is Ghady’s grandniece, Carrie, a lively ten-year-old. Carrie lives with her 26-year-old mother but does not know her father, who also sired her 12-year-old brother. Her five-year-old brother has a different father.
Yet for all these markers of social dysfunction, fatherless Hispanic families differ from the black underclass in one significant area: many of the mothers and the absent fathers work, even despite growing welfare use. The former boyfriend of Jessica, the 18-year-old mother at the Hillview Acres foster home, works in construction and moonlights on insulation jobs; whether he still deals drugs is unknown. Jessica is postponing joining her father in Texas until she finishes high school, because once she moves in with him, she will feel obligated to get a job to help the family finances. The mother of Hillview’s 14-year-old Irene used to fix soda machines in Anaheim, California, though she got fired because she was lazy, Irene says. Now, under court compulsion, she works in a Lunchables factory in Santa Ana, a condition of getting her children back from foster care. The 18-year-old Lothario and father of two, whom Planned Parenthood’s Jason Warner is trying to counsel, works at a pet store. The mother of Carrie, the vivacious ten-year-old sitting in on Berendo Middle School’s Violence Intervention Program, makes pizza at a Papa John’s pizza outlet.
How these two value systems—a lingering work ethic and underclass mating norms—will interact in the future is anyone’s guess. Orange County sheriff’s deputy Montoya says that the older Hispanic generation’s work ethic is fast disappearing among the gangbanging youngsters whom he sees. “Now, it’s all about fast money, drugs, and sex.” It may be that the willingness to work will plummet along with marriage rates, leading to even greater social problems than are now rife among Hispanics. Or it may be that the two contrasting practices will remain on parallel tracks, creating a new kind of underclass: a culture that tolerates free-floating men who impregnate women and leave, like the vast majority of black men, yet who still labor in the noncriminal economy. The question is whether, if the disposition to work remains relatively strong, a working parent will inoculate his or her illegitimate children against the worst degradations that plague black ghettos.
From an intellectual standpoint, this is a fascinating social experiment, one that academicians are—predictably—not attuned to. But the consequences will be more than intellectual: they may severely strain the social fabric. Nevertheless, it is an experiment that we seem destined to see to its end. Tisha Roberts, a supervisor at an Orange County, California, institution that assists children in foster care, has given up hope that the illegitimacy rate will taper off. “It’s going to continue to grow,” she says, “until we can put birth control in the water.”