Hispanics comprise a large and growing percentage of the population of the United States. According to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, 17 percent of the nation’s population currently identifies itself as Hispanic or Latino, two terms used interchangeably. That makes Hispanics second only to Whites in terms of percentage of the overall population. [www.quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html] While the majority of that segment of the population identifying itself as Hispanic are Mexican-Americans, followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans, there are also sizable communities of immigrants from Central American countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala. With such ethnic and cultural diversity, one needs to be cautious about carelessly grouping all Hispanics together when discussing social and cultural difficulties common to these groups. With such a large percentage of the country’s population identifying itself as Hispanic, increasingly the problems prevalent in those communities affect the broader American population.
While the number of Hispanics in the United States grows, and while many have successfully assimilated over the generations and are represented in the country’s middle class, the sad fact remains that they are disproportionately represented below the poverty line. In fact, and again referring to U.S. Census Bureau figures, a larger percentage of Hispanics are living below the poverty line than any other ethnic group in the United States, with 28.2 percent surviving on minimal income. [See www.pewhispanic.org/2011/11/08/hispanic-poverty-rate-highest-in-new-supplemental-census-measure/]
With such a large percentage of Hispanics living in poverty, it is not surprising that drug and alcohol abuse among Hispanic communities is correspondingly high. Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that, from 2002 to 2007, “an average of 8.3 percent (2.6 million) of Hispanics age 12 or older needed alcohol use treatment in the past year, and 3.4 percent (1.1 million) needed illicit drug use treatment.” [www.samhsa.gov/samhsanenewsletter/Volume_17_Number_5/HispanicsTreatmentNeeded.aspx] A corollary of this data is the cyclical nature of families afflicted with alcohol and drug abuse among their members. Children of alcoholics are statistically more likely to become alcoholics themselves than children growing up in healthier environments. Breaking that cycle is always a major challenge.
In addition to the perennial problems of drug and alcohol abuse, and extending again from the underlying problem of poverty and social dissolution, is the large percentage of Hispanic youths who join gangs as a means of empowerment and social connection. The National Gang Center reports that Hispanics are statistically well-represented among identified gang members in major urban areas. In fact, they represent the single largest number of gang members in the country. [See www.nationalgangcenter.gov/survey-analysis/demographics] Research has repeatedly demonstrated that many Hispanic youths join gangs due either to coercion or a need for a substitute family that will provide a sense of belonging and protection.
While Hispanic cultures have provided a unique and positive element to the United States, it would be irresponsible to ignore the social problems endemic in those communities.