There is a crisis of poverty among Latinx immigrant children in the U.S., particularly among undocumented, mixed-status, and single-parent households. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Shantel is a Dominican immigrant and single mother, whose 8-year-old daughter is a U.S. citizen. They have lived in New York City public housing and received financial assistance since Shantel lost her job in mid-2021 after an accident. The two currently still rely on those services. “Once I had my foot surgery in June, I had to apply for unemployment, because I couldn’t receive [both] unemployment and short-term disability,” she says. Shantel had to choose between health care and housing.
Shantel used the benefits to purchase food and clothing for her daughter, who attended remote learning until schools reopened. After both mother and daughter contracted COVID-19 earlier this year, they were forced to quarantine. “I believe she got it from school,” she says.
Shantel immigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was 5 years old. Initially an undocumented immigrant, she has been a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient for the past 10 years.
Shantel is not in contact with her immediate family, and her child’s father is absent. In the past, she called in sick from work twice in order to pick her daughter up from school, and she was fired as a result. Finding a job that sympathizes with her parental responsibilities has not been easy. “There were many times I didn’t go to work. I didn’t have anyone to watch her,” she says.
Shantel’s biggest concern is losing her work permit if “DACA was taken from us.” She says, “I would not be able to pay my rent. I would have to go to a shelter or be homeless. Or, I might [have to] go back to a place I don’t know.”
Even with DACA, Immigrant Families Face Systemic Challenges
Analysis from the Hispanic Research Center shows that poverty deeply affects Latinx children with immigrant parents, and especially those with noncitizen parents. One in four Latinx minors—that’s 4.9 million children—live with at least one undocumented parent. Having a noncitizen parent increases the chances of poverty. Despite working hard, immigrant families are still more likely to have low incomes.
Minimum-wage jobs simply do not pay enough for parents to afford child care. Not having social support limits where and when Shantel can work. Still, self-reliance is a priority for her. She says, “I’m really trying to go back to my independence. At the moment, it is hard. … I don’t have anyone to help me.”
Government assistance for low-income immigrants like Shantel is generally unavailable. Federal programs designed to aid families in need, such as Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit, are often restricted to families with two citizen parents. This places immigrant children (who are disproportionately Latinx) with undocumented parents at a disadvantage. Additionally, children with at least one undocumented parent are less likely to seek help from the government for fear of deportation.
According to a report by the National Center for Children in Poverty, about 17% of children in the United States live in poverty despite residing in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Latinx and Black families have twice the financial difficulties in paying for home-related expenses compared with their White and Asian peers. Latinx children in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to lack social support and have lower-quality education.
Even in affluent counties, Latinx children still face financial inequality and, according to the latest County Health Rankings & Roadmaps study, do not have the same opportunities as their peers to have such things as quality health care. In contrast, children in financially stable homes, who are disproportionately White and Asian, enjoy better education, more social support, and access to resources.
Childhood poverty is also linked to future health and wealth disparities. The research organization Child Trends finds in its latest report that exposure to financial insecurity makes children susceptible to long-term hardships, such as emotional regulation, which in turn affects their learning abilities. Latinx teens have the highest high school dropout rates of all ethnic and racial groups. Current education reforms have not improved graduation rates.
Child Trends also finds that families report difficulties in meeting household expenses, suffer from poor physical and mental health, and lack access to health insurance during the pandemic. And, according to the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families, housing insecurity is a pressing concern for two-fifths of Latinx families.
Such trends appear to be getting worse. The wealth of Latinx households decreased by 51% from 1983 to 2013 and is projected to keep decreasing.
Those Without DACA Are Worse Off
Maria, a Mexican immigrant, has lived as an undocumented person in the U.S. for 25 years. Unlike Shantel, she is not a DACA recipient. After she separated from her partner, Maria was the main breadwinner for her five daughters. She could not file for child support, as neither she, nor her ex-partner, were citizens.
Maria’s eldest daughters are now in their 20s and 30s and assist her with household finances and with child care for their younger siblings. While she successfully provided for her daughters, she has one regret, saying, “My daughters grew up without a mother [around]. I had to work so much that I didn’t spend time with them.”
Her main preoccupation was always paying rent. She says, “Landlords will never understand that you are a single mother, [that] you are undocumented and don’t have help from the government.” When her daughters were young, she left each morning after making sure her daughters were dressed and ate breakfast before school. She returned in the early morning hours after 16-hour shifts—when they were already asleep.
Solutions to Latinx Childhood Poverty
Latinx immigrant families face systemic racism in the U.S., centered on stereotypes about “lazy” and “criminal” people of color. This, in combination with the belief that wealth can be achieved with hard work alone, is used to justify poverty by blaming individuals instead of systemic inequality as a whole. The community organization Salud America! recommends working toward a “more cohesive culture” to “ensure that each person has a fair, just opportunity for health and wealth, as well as equitable access to basic resources required for these goals.”
While the individualist American mindset generally does not account for systemic racism in acquiring generational wealth and becoming a homeowner, there are fortunately many grassroots organizations working to combat that by making resources available to Latinx communities. They include the Hispanic Federation, Project Paz, the Committee for Hispanic Children & Families, Latin Women in Action, and the New Immigrant Community Empowerment. These organizations provide local services, such as counseling, immigration services, placement in child care programs, and after-school activities for kids.
Still, more is needed, and in the absence of comprehensive federal immigration reform, mixed-status families and noncitizens lack information about their rights. For example, Information about tax IDs and SNAP should be made accessible and available in languages other than English.
Undocumented parents are eligible for a tax identification number that allows them to pay taxes and have an independent business, but this is not widely enough known. Another example is the lack of information about immigrant eligibility for government food aid. At the onset of the pandemic, 47% of Latinx households with children experienced food insecurity. Mixed-immigration households may have chosen not to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, even though they are eligible, because of fears of deportation after anti-immigration policies from the Trump administration.
If local and federal government agencies addressed poverty in Latinx immigrant children and families, justice would begin for vulnerable families.
is a journalist and writer based in New York City. She specializes in Social Justice, Immigration, Labor, Politics, Health, Latinx news, and American news. Her work has appeared on WNYC, NPR, Latino USA, PEN America, Palabra, Guernica, Mental Floss, and others. She is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and you can reach her at [email protected]