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New study shows local Latinos provide vital boost to the economy

A crowd watches a dance performance at the Children's Day Parade in Pilsen. John J. Kim ~ Sun-Times

The Chicago area’s Latino population is becoming an increasingly vital contributor to the local economy, disputing a perception that Latinos tend to take more than they contribute to society, a new report claims.

And with the Latino population expected to provide 25 percent of the Chicago metropolitan area’s total workforce by 2015, the city’s future prosperity may well hinge on whether Latinos thrive, according to the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies report titled “The State of Latino Chicago 2010: The New Equation.”

“In economically trying times, with many looking for a scapegoat for our region’s fiscal woes, the Institute for Latino Studies once and for all refutes the notion that Latinos are socio-economic drains,” said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum. “Investing in Latinos offers a sound return on investment, helping shape our strong, shared future as a region.”

The report – based on the most recently available U.S. Census data as well as local, state and federal reports for the city, Cook and the collar counties – is set to be released Wednesday.

Against a backdrop of a country divided and confused over immigration policy, the report’s authors set out to find out just how much Latinos contribute to the local economy – and take from local government coffers.

“I was suspecting that Latinos were actually costing more than what they were contributing, and they were not,” said the report’s lead author, Prof. Juan Carlos Guzman.

In fact, Guzman said, Latinos – both legal residents and undocumented workers – contributed almost $1.2 billion more in tax revenues than they cost in the delivery of public services, which includes such things as education, health care and public safety.

Even so, for every dollar Latinos pay in taxes, local governments shell out about 77 cents in services to that population compared with 35 cents per dollar for Caucasians, the report states. Paying to educate a generally younger Latino population accounts for much of the difference, Guzman said.

“The issue is that education – yes, it’s a cost, but it’s also an investment,” said Allert Brown-Gort, the institute’s associate director. “It’s a particularly important investment if you look at how young this population is, and how quickly their share of the population of workers is going to rise.”

Among the report’s other findings:

â—† Latinos own more than 56,000 businesses, about 6.5 percent of all businesses in the Chicago metropolitan area.

â—† Latinos make up 22 percent of the region’s population.

â—† Latinos have 64 percent of Caucasians’ median household income.

â—† The recession hit Latinos particularly hard, with unemployment in 2008 at 7.2 percent, rising to 12.1 percent in 2009.

The report’s findings did not come as a shock to shoppers at Cermak Produce in Pilsen Tuesday.

“Mexicans come here to get a better job and work hard,” said a mother of two, Adriana Guzman, 36, whose husband is a CTA driver.

“They work in restaurants, as cleaners, or wherever there are jobs that other Americans don’t want to do, so it isn’t a surprise that they’re contributing,” she added.

Truck driver Luis Arteaga, 42, also of Pilsen, said his family came to the United States 30 years ago in search of a better life. Though he has personally never been accused of taking more than he gives, he is aware of the stereotype, he said.

But “anybody who’s working hard and trying to better themselves, you have to respect that – it doesn’t matter if they’re Latinos or from wherever,” he said.

Contributing: Kim Janssen