Labor and health care concerns, rather than immigration, are driving the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election, according to Maria Figueroa, senior associate of labor policy research at Cornell's Worker Institute. She spoke Oct. 3 at the ILR Conference Center in New York City.
Figueroa said the Latino workforce is faring better now than in the period before the 2007 recession, and for Latinos "the economic policies of the Obama administration are working."
The highest percentage of Latinos work in the education and health services sectors, which are not only "significantly unionized" at a rate of 25-30 percent nationwide, but is also "largely shielded from the ups and downs of the economy," Figueroa said.
The Service Employees International Union, one of the largest health services unions, represents the sector where most Latinos work. Latino union members earn median wages of $811 per week, at least 36 percent higher than the $520 per week of nonunion Latinos, Figueroa said, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.
Professional and business services and manufacturing, which also rank as top employment sectors for Latinos, "also tend to be stable" enough to counteract instability in the economy, she said."Latinos are workers," Figueroa said, "and so we are likely to favor policies that will raise standards for workers."
Latinos represent 15 percent of the U.S. labor force, the highest racial-ethnic labor participation rate, as measured by the percentage of the civilian working-age population that is working or looking for a job. But in the 2008 presidential election, the 10 million Latinos who voted amounted to just half of eligible Latino voters.
Their unemployment rate, at 10.4 percent in the first quarter of 2012, is down from 11.3 percent last year but is still high because "there are so many of us are out there in the labor force," Figueroa said.
Despite the improved employment figures, Latinos still face issues with income distribution and health insurance. The 2010 U.S. Census showed that 30.7 percent of Latino workers are uninsured. "Latinos will vote for somebody who addresses that issue," Figueroa said.
Latinos have median incomes much lower than the nation as a whole -- $39,730 for Latino households compared to $60,088 for all U.S. households. "Because Latinos tend to be on the lower end of the income spectrum, they are likely to go for candidates and administrations that say they will take care of this situation," said Figueroa -- specifically "income tax policies that will redistribute income in a progressive manner such as the proposal by President Obama to increase income tax rates for households that earn more than $200,000 per year."
Most Latino families with members who are U.S. or naturalized citizens have mixed immigration status. "Usually, parents are undocumented," Figueroa said. "But for Latinos who are likely to vote, immigration is a key issue but not necessarily the top issue."
As for how the Hispanic vote will affect the 2012 election, of the 10 states with the highest Latino populations, Colorado and Florida are battleground states. But in the other swing states, California, Texas, New Mexico, New York, Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and Georgia, "we do not represent a significant component of the voting population in those states," Figueroa said. "Nonetheless, from the perspective of Obama and the Democrats, it's a force that needs to kept in the Democratic camp."
Caroline Shin is a freelance writer in New York City.