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Dr. Laura Lein
is a senior lecturer in both the School of Social Work and the Department of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Hispanic Children

Many Hispanic children in Texas live in dire poverty. One in four Texas children are poor, but Hispanic children are almost twice as likely to be poor as other children. They and their families struggle, particularly in the Rio Grande border region, with inadequate basic and social services. The families themselves, as well as those offering services to families, are working to develop a clear sense of the policies and programs necessary to children's well-being. This, they hope, will secure a better future for their children and other Hispanic children.

This assessment emerges from data compiled and analyzed by researchers in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. An extensive report, written in partnership with the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, details the status of Hispanic children in Texas, with special emphasis on children living along the Texas-Mexico border.

The report, Hispanic Children in Texas, is remarkable. A range of material on Hispanic children, highlighting their experiences in the border counties, draws data from a multitude of sources. A comprehensive team of people-community residents, activists, and service providers-came together in numerous communities to discuss the implications of the records and statistics provided by six different state agencies. Their contributions led to the interpretation of this data. Through their participation and their visions the report explores the implications of children's experiences and their needs for the future. From the numerical data came a baseline of information from which to measure the progress of Hispanic children in Texas. And from the interpretations offered by people throughout the state emerged a number of recommendations for addressing the identified problems.

The special report highlights various critical problems faced by Hispanic children in Texas. It identifies some of the innovative community-based programs working to assist Hispanic children and their families. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the issues faced by the particularly high proportion of Hispanic children residing in the border counties: approximately 80 percent of the border counties' residents are Hispanic. While Hispanic children in Texas face many problems putting them at risk of continuing poverty, they, their parents, and the community organizations serving them present both a careful delineation of the issues and ideas for ways to counter the impact of current problems on children's lives. One of the many rewards for those working on this project was meeting with people all over the state, and particularly with groups of residents, service providers, and teens in communities along the Rio Grande border.

Hispanic Children in Poverty. More than 40 percent of Hispanic children in Texas are poor, while only 18 percent of white children face poverty. Hispanic children's poverty is most pronounced in the border counties, where over 45 percent of the children are in poverty. Two-thirds of the children in Starr county, one of the poorest counties in the nation according to the 1990 census, are poor. Community advocates and activists repeatedly returned to issues of poverty when discussing the conditions faced by Hispanic children.

The poverty has many ramifications. When families are struggling just to stay out of destitution, they have few resources to devote to their children's education and supervision, to health care and preventive practices, and to training and development that will provide parents access to better paid and more stable jobs. Poverty has impacts on children that carry far into their futures.

Poverty in the border counties is compounded by political factors, according to community residents and agency personnel alike. They explain that the relative isolation of the border region from urban centers, and from the state political apparatus, make it hard for local leaders to be active and influential on behalf of their communities. One hospital staff person pointed out, "Often decisions are made at these (state) levels that will drastically affect the border area, and they neglect to bring the border region into the decision-making process."

A community development director at a local agency explained that border area residents face problems in the area of basic services, "The main problems that border residents face are lack of education and employment opportunities for parents. There is a lack of comprehensive health care, transportation, clinics, and adult basic education. All of this translates to finances. El Paso is distant from the Capitol: few politicians truly understand the needs of the border."

Indeed Hispanic residents in Texas, particularly those in the border counties, show significant differences from other Texas residents in many of these areas. Residents in the border areas, agency staff, and local political representatives feel that the state government apparatus has relatively little understanding of the distinctive issues facing them.

Unemployment Along the Border. In most counties the unemployment rates for Hispanics are significantly higher than the county average. These differences are pronounced in the border counties, where overall unemployment is also high. Thus rates of unemployment for Hispanics are as high as 43 percent, for example, in Presidio County. Unemployment among Hispanics is closely related to the poverty of children in those families strongly affected by joblessness. Where adults have difficulty locating jobs, the children dependent on them fall into poverty. In many cases, adults working as migrant workers and in other low-wage occupations have multiple jobs and work long and irregular hours. While these households remain in poverty, their children also experience a lack of parental supervision.

Community members all along the border have examined closely the ramifications for their areas of the NAFTA agreement. While many community residents were optimistic that, in the long run, job opportunities may well improve, they were skeptical about the short-range impact of possible job shortages. They perceived the needs for job training and placement programs to equip people for the new kinds of jobs that may be emerging.

Hispanic Teens. Current job shortages in the border region strongly affect Hispanic teen workers. Nearly 11 percent of Hispanic teenagers in Texas experience "teen idleness," being neither in school nor in the labor market. One service worker commented, "The number of street children has considerably increased. Those children are generally between ten-and seventeen-years-old, but often they are also younger. Many of these children in and of the streets do not attend school and are without supervision. Frequently, their families fall between the cracks of the system and do not know how to access or re-access it."

As teen idleness figures suggest, school drop-out rates are disturbingly high, particularly in the border region. Across the state, almost half of the school dropouts reported for the 1991-1992 school year were Hispanic. Furthermore, those children who drop out before the seventh grade are not represented in the dropout statistics. A school teacher, quoted in a newspaper article, described one family's situation: "Last year, a school nurse brought us two brothers who were going to school on different days. One would go one day and the other would go the next. They were sharing one pair of shoes."

The teenagers themselves, however, see the importance of continuing with their education. One teen from a border county explained, "The only way I can get out of here, out of the life I know I will have is through my education ... If I stay here, I'm going to end up just like working all my life, working hard for nothing, just to get by."

Health on the Border. Poverty is not only tied to the high rate of unemployment and the difficulties faced by Hispanic children in school, but also to the kinds of health issues faced by Hispanic children. The health problems faced by children congregated in the border counties begin before they are born. Hispanic mothers had the highest rate among all groups of mothers in Texas for having received little or no prenatal care. This lack of prenatal care can lead to a higher incidence of problem pregnancies, and the babies are more likely to have health problems.

Lack of health care is related to a shortage of medical personnel and facilities. The Texas Department of Health identified parts of all but one of the border counties as "Health Professional Shortage Areas." In these areas there is more than a 3,000 to 1 ratio between population and physicians. In fact, some residents of the border counties report that they go to Mexico for their medical care. It is both more affordable and more readily available. In addition to the need for more doctors and nurses, we received comments on the shortages in mental health services.

Children growing up in the colonias that mark the border region face additional health problems. Through the last decade the area has seen high rates of tuberculosis, diabetes, asthma, intestinal disorders, and hepatitis. Especially those living in the unincorporated communities called colonias suffer the effects of water pollution, as well as airborne contaminants.

Many non-urban residents in the border area get their water from wells, but many must acquire their water from outside sources. One attorney in the El Paso area described a water problem in the Hispanic community. "People will haul water and store it in 55-gallon drums. The El Paso City County Health Department conducted a survey of one colonia that had no potable water and found that about half the people stored water in this type of drum and that 70 percent of those drums were labeled indicating the contents were toxic, such as methylene chloride, stoddard solvent, and trichloroethane. People will use water from wells which have been contaminated by outhouses and septic tanks which are located twenty to fifty yards of these wells."

Water pollution is not the only environmental problem faced by Hispanic border children. Other common airborne pollutants include auto exhausts, pesticide sprays, and smoke from tire burning. Unpaved streets leave dust in the area. Border residents talked about the prevalence of respiratory diseases, throat infections, asthma, and intestinal problems experienced by their children.

Service Delivery. Although the large majority of children in the border region were born in the United States, the families of many of them maintain strong ties to Mexico. Children and their families visit back and forth across the border. Family members seek both employment and services, such as medical care, where they are most available. Community service providers talked about the continuing need to coordinate programs and services with organizations in Mexico. Where such coordination is lacking, the services for families and their children must necessarily suffer.

Community workers along the border pointed out that not only did children and their families face problems with poverty and job shortages, but they also faced a dearth of public services. In the small cities, towns, and rural areas marking the border counties, services were often scarce or unavailable. Residents commented often on the need for training for their children, "What youth need is vocational/technical education, a 'Centro de Capicitacion' or vocational/technical training school. This training would not require youth to have completed all schooling or to leave school. For example, classes could be offered from six to ten p.m. The youth would get out of school and, instead of hanging around in the streets doing nothing, they could be receiving training."

The poverty of the border region, and the consequent health problems, are marked by difficulties with food and water. Fifteen percent of the households usually do not have enough to eat; of these, fully one-third of the households receive no food stamps or other food assistance. Children not attending school regularly cannot take regular advantage of the school lunch and breakfast programs.

Recommendations. Community residents had a multitude of ideas for how to respond to the far-reaching problems faced by Hispanic children in Texas.

  • Provide resources for the development of effective labor force participation. Residents and program staff alike stressed the need for increased vocational and technical training. Scarce educational resources are available to children and their parents to prepare them for jobs

  • Address the need for increased attention and visibility to border area issues. Residents and community agencies call for state and federal lawmakers to visit the border regions to see for themselves the problems and the lack of resources. More border area residents need to sit on state boards and planning commissions. Equalization of funding across the state for social, health, and educational programming is needed. Resources are needed for incentive programs to draw health care professionals to practice in the border counties.

  • Address the need for increased international cooperation. Bi-national efforts are needed to control the spread of communicable diseases and to develop adequate health care, including prevention programs. Attention should be focused on environmental issues such as the provision of safe drinking water, the disposal of hazardous waste, and the reduction of pollution.
  • Conclusion. Hispanic Children in Texas lays out an initial statement of the areas where need is great and the measures documenting those needs. In doing so, it creates a "baseline" status for Hispanic children from which our progress can be measured. It also suggests an agenda of issues and program needs to be addressed in the future.

    Acknowledgments: Dr. Yolanda Padilla and Pamela Hormuth, along with UT Austin graduate students and representatives from other agencies, were instrumental in the Hispanic children project. Dr. Padilla also assisted in the writing of this article.


    August 7, 1997
    Comments or suggestions to utopa@www.utexas.edu
    Copyright © 1997 Office of Public Affairs
    at The University of Texas at Austin