Posted on March 20, 2008

Bad News From California

The Economist, March 19, 2008

Every Sunday Elias Loera stands behind a pulpit made from motorcycle parts and preaches family values to the people of Fresno. He rails against sinful living and neglectful fathers, yet is careful not to offend. Mr Loera reckons more than half of the women in his almost entirely Hispanic congregation are single mothers. He tries to avoid speaking of “father God”, so dismal are many people’s experiences with fathers in this struggling Californian city.

Whether Cuban, Mexican or Puerto Rican, most Latinos revere la familia. But the Hispanic family is changing. In the past ten years the birth rate among unmarried Latinas has risen from 89 to 100 per 1,000. It is now much higher than the rate among black or white women (see below). Late last year came a significant but little-noticed announcement: probably for the first time, half of all Hispanic children in America were born out of wedlock.

The Latino family is not in such a dire state as the black family, where 71% of children are born to single mothers. Yet the gap appears to be closing. In 1995 the unmarried teenage birth rate for Latinas was 20% lower than the rate for blacks. It is now 12% higher. This is not just a worry for socially-conservative preachers. More than half of all young Hispanic children in families headed by a single mother are living below the federal poverty line, compared with 21% being raised by a married couple.

Many blame these changes on the decay of traditional mores. Ed Moreno, Fresno’s public-health officer, points to the enormous differences between recent immigrants from rural areas—at the moment, the city is seeing an influx from the Mexican state of Oaxaca—and American-born Latinos. The new arrivals rule their children with an iron hand. Among them teenage pregnancies are rare and often followed by marriage, sometimes at the point of a metaphorical shotgun.

By the second or third generation such old-fashioned attitudes are generally forgotten. Among the poor, cohabitation is seen as normal and single parenthood merely regrettable. Research by Wendy Manning of Bowling Green State University and others shows that unmarried Mexican-American couples who have children while living together are slightly more likely to break up than are blacks or whites in similar circumstances.

America is not wholly to blame for the state of the Hispanic family. What may be particularly disastrous is the combination of American inner-city norms and traditional Latin attitudes. Those who campaign against teenage pregnancy complain of a “1950s mentality” among Hispanic parents, who continue to believe that talking to their children about sex puts ideas in their heads. Pedro Elías of Planned Parenthood says machismo persists among young Latinos in Fresno, making them less inclined to use condoms. Latinas frequently obtain imported birth-control pills from flea markets, together with dodgy advice about how to use them.

Although poor Hispanic families are coming to resemble poor black families, they do not feel like them. Marriage is no less prized as it becomes less common. Many Latinos still regard it as deeply shameful to allow one’s parents to enter a nursing home. Yet this may be changing. A question about whether they expect to live with their children in old age provokes confident head-shaking among a group of Mexican mothers who are learning English in a Fresno school.

Above all, the large extended families and networks of godparents, which provide crucial support to young Latina mothers, seem to be weakening. A big reason is language. An immigrant grandmother, for example, may well struggle to communicate with her American-born children. She will probably speak little English, while they are likely to speak almost no Spanish. Extended families are also strained by migration: Latinos are increasingly spreading out from traditional enclaves in California, Texas and New York to places such as North Carolina and rural Ohio.

The alarm that these changes have produced has been picked up and amplified by the fast-growing Latino evangelical movement. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, describes the state of the Latino family as a more urgent problem than reform of America’s dysfunctional immigration system. For some, family breakdown presents an opportunity for evangelism. Mr Loera says his congregation has grown in part because he takes in women who are evicted from other churches when they become pregnant. He relentlessly promotes marriage.

A slim majority of Hispanic adults were born outside America, and retain a degree of traditional attitudes. In time the balance between native and foreign-born will surely tip, as it has already done in Fresno. As Latinos become more American, they may be able to achieve a more benign balance between old and new ways. Or they may fail. In which case, just as they overcome one obstacle to progress in America—the English language—they will hit another of their own making.