This year’s election highlighted the growing impact Latinos are having on the South. And there’s a reason for that: the highest rates of increase in Latino populations in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000 were in six states: North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama. None of these states are generally considered traditional settlement states—and none are the Southern states where one might expect to see such rapid growth, such as Texas or Florida.

In 2010, 36 percent of all Latinos in the United States lived in the South. North Carolina had the highest rate of increase, an astounding 394 percent (see Table 1 for the increase in other states). And overall, the South experienced a growth of 57 percent in its Latino population, four times the growth of the general population in the region (14 percent). Across the U.S., since 1960, the Latino population has increased from 6.3 million to 55.3 million and is projected to grow to 119 million by 2060, according to the latest projections from the U.S. Census Bureau (2014).

What does this mean? Here’s an analogy. We can probably all agree that middle school is hard and awkward for everyone, with new social norms and higher expectations. Now imagine that middle school feeling, but infused in every part of your life—housing, transportation, employment, and beyond. Imagine having just moved to town, being from a different country, and not knowing the language. Imagine doing that alone. These are just some of the challenges faced by Latinos, who migrate here for work, and their families, who eventually end up calling the South their home.

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This isn’t a new story. The traditional settlement states—New Jersey, California, Illinois, and New York—have experienced increases in Latino population from the beginning of migration waves from the 1960s, and at a steady rate. The Latino population grew in every region of the United States between 2000 and 2010, most significantly in the South and Midwest. What makes the Latino migration in the South unique is the speed of its growth, the relation to the growth of other population groups, the reasons for the growth, and the characteristics of the Latinos settling here.

In the traditional settlement states, most Latinos come to be reunited with family members. Since the Latino population growth in the South is still relatively new, the number one reason for Latino migration is work. According to the 2006 report “The New Latino South: The Context and Consequences of Rapid Population Growth,” Latinos in the South are much more likely to be foreign-born recent arrivals, often of Mexican origin, who only speak Spanish. They tend to be young, single males with a median age of 27, with little formal education. While work is often the draw, in 2000 the median annual income of Hispanic workers in these new settlement states was just $16,000 per year.  Even more disheartening are the poverty rates among Latinos in the six Southern states. Between 1990 and 2000 poverty rates increased from 19.7 percent to 25.5 percent, a 30 percent increase compared with the poverty rate for Latinos nationwide, which dropped by 4 percent.

Those income and poverty rate figures may be the result of language barriers and lack of an established community, which limit economic mobility and make it difficult for them to participate in the institutions that make up an infrastructure of opportunity.  A drive through major cities in the traditional settlement states such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago would reveal strip malls of Latin food, clothing, and services. When Latinos move to these cities they are more likely to find others who speak Spanish and can connect them to jobs. There are some business districts popping up here and there in the South (think taquerias, Latin grocery stores, and laundromats), but in many places they are not nearly as established or accessible.

What parts of the infrastructure of opportunity can help break down the barriers that limit economic mobility? Here are a couple:

  • Breaking down the language barrier is key. Bilingual or dual language resources like food assistance programs and job placement agencies can contribute to ease of access to living wage jobs for this demographic and help new residents learn how to navigate financial, education, and employment systems.
  • While the current demographic is young and single, there are future generations to consider. We know that a child’s health, education, and economic mobility are closely linked to a parent’s financial well-being and education. A two-generation approach is key to consolidating the complexities of being born in the United States to immigrant parents.

That next generation will enter the education system and eventually the economy. They will be bilingual, have unique life experiences, and two cultures. With these unique and powerful attributes, how do they belong? How can we make sure they thrive? How can we ensure they are shaping the South—and their own lives—for the better? In upcoming posts we will explore what it looks like in the second generation of Latinos as these young people settle down and have families.