The Hispanic Gender Gap: Can Latinas Save the American Family?

In traditional Latin cultures it's often assumed that macho males rule. But in the USA today, the opposite is true. Latin women are increasingly the main breadwinner, the head of the household, the key decision maker and the principle parent. According to U. S. Census Bureau projections, all of the growth in U.S. families with children will come from multicultural families by 2020, most of them Hispanic. In other words, as goes the Hispanic family, so goes the American family. What's more, the ripple effects of the Latino male malaise are severe and far reaching, with long-term implications for the nation's economic prosperity and social well being.

Latino men, as a group, are lagging behind women in education, entrepreneurship, and employment--yet they lead the way in job loss, high school drop out rates and incarceration. In 2004, 28.4% of Latino males between the ages of 16 to 24 years old had failed to complete high school, compared with 18.5% of Latino females, 7.1% of White males, and 13.5% of African American males. The proportion of Latino males enrolling in college has declined even as admission rates for Latinas has risen. Latinas in their 20s and 30s already earn more than Latino men of the same age in the nation's largest metropolitan areas. And while the Great Recession has disproportionately affected Hispanics of both genders, it's Latino men who are the most likely to give up, tune out and flip off their future.

It's bad enough that half of the nation's largest minority group is losing its grip on the possibilities and aspirations of the middle class, but the slide of Latino men ultimately threatens the foundations and vitality of the U.S economy. Studies show that if the Latino gender gap is allowed to fester, the resulting decrease of qualified young men in the labor force could trigger a drop in productivity. As the U.S. Hispanic population continues to grow, and the U.S. economy becomes more reliant on the next generation of U.S.-born multicultural workers, a dearth of educated Hispanic professionals could hinder economic growth and global competitiveness. Finally, it's an established fact that men without a high school or college diploma are more likely to be unemployed, divorced or unable to support a family-- let alone hold their own with a growing pool of educated and upwardly-mobile Latinas. Young men who grow up without fathers are more likely themselves to be divorced, unemployed or struggle with depression, drug use and incarceration. College graduates, on the other hand, get better jobs, earn more money during their careers, and are more likely to get married, vote, participate in their local community, and have a positive view of society and themselves.

The Hispanic gender gap has been routinely downplayed by Latinos and non-Latinos alike, but the downward spiral of Latino males is becoming impossible to ignore. Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a city-wide campaign to restore the educational and economic prospects of Latino and African American men. The $30 million initiative, which will be bankrolled by New York City, along with private contributions by Mayor Bloomberg's personal foundation and the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, is aimed at an estimated 315,000 New Yorkers who are disproportionately undereducated, incarcerated and unemployed. But the same problem, to varying degrees, exists in every city and town in America, which makes the marginalization of Latino and African American men an issue that needs to be addressed with private and public funds at the city, state and national level. For corporations and advertisers looking to connect with the multicultural New Mainstream, education is already a hot button being leveraged to gain the trust and allegiance of Hispanic consumers. By harnessing the convergence of commercial, civic and community interests, public awareness could snowball into a national movement to educate and redirect Latino men before it's too late.

How did machos lose their mojo? While the plight of Latino males mirrors the downward trend of American men in general, understanding the unique challenges and pressures faced by Hispanic men might help in the quest for a solution. In a paper published by the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, Victor B. Saenz, from the University of Texas at Austin, and Luis Ponjuan, from the University of Florida, warn: "Latino male students are 'vanishing' from the American education pipeline." Among the possible causes of Latino men's lack of educational attainment, say Saenz and Ponjuan, are a culturally-ingrained code of "machismo" that prizes swagger over scholarship and urban social peer groups that equate academic success with "acting White." Other barriers to Latino scholarship include a lack of male teachers and mentors to guide them through the education process and familismo, or a strong identification and attachment to the immediate family unit that discourages individual attainment, even if that means forgoing the life-long advantages of a college education.

Experts agree that one of the most effective ways to overcome cultural and structural barriers to educational achievement is to get at least one person in the family into college. That trailblazer then becomes a facilitator and role model for others with the desire and ability to follow in their footsteps, lifting the entire family to the next rung on the socio-economic ladder. That's the idea behind "Generation First Degree", a program by the Hispanic Scholarship Fund aimed at getting at least one member of every Latino family into a two- or four-college by 2025. "Today only 19% of Latinos in the 25-64 year old workforce have a 2-year degree or better, compared to 40% for the rest of the population," explains HSF President and CEO Frank Alvarez, who worries about the spillover effects of an under-educated and under-employed Latino population. "If we're not careful, the disparity will continue, and as the problem worsens it will wreck the core of the American family."

All Americans have a stake in getting Hispanic males back on track. Latinas, who have a propensity for putting their families first, are taking up much of the slack with ambition and verve, but they can't fix the problem alone. "The danger is that if we don't find a way to bring Latinos into the higher education pipeline we could end up creating a permanent lower class," says Alvarez. "We could then be facing a permanent underemployment reality--and that's scary." Very.