Immigration and Hispanic Middle Class

By William A.V. Clark on April 1, 2001

Table of Contents

Defining the Middle Class
Assimilating to the Middle Class
Re-Examining the Hispanic Middle Class
Becoming Middle Class: Timing, Cohorts, and the Second Generation
Progress and Inequality: Observations and Conclusions


There continues to be an important debate about the future assimilation of the recent immigrant flows to the United States. Will the most recent immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, follow paths that are similar to those of earlier waves of immigrants from Europe, advancing economically, and integrating into the wider American society, or will many new immigrants be marginalized in their new setting? This paper sets out to examine one facet of this question: whether immigrants are moving up and joining that quintessential American group, the middle class. The middle class definition includes both middle income, defined as 200 to 499 percent of poverty, and homeownership. This paper examines the absolute numerical and proportional changes in both native-born and foreign-born middle class Hispanic households over the past two decades and places them in the context of the general changes in the general middle class population in that period.

Overall, there is a notable increase in the Hispanic middle class. Media perceptions of an increasing Hispanic middle class are not mistaken. At the same time, the increase is significantly less than some other estimates of the number of middle class Hispanics using rather broader measures of the middle class. Hispanic middle class households increased from slightly more than one million in 1980 to nearly 3 million in 1999. They increased from 2.2 percent of all middle class households to 5.1 percent of all middle class households in the same time frame.

Foreign-born Hispanic households are making much less progress than U.S.-born Hispanics toward becoming middle class. There is also evidence that they are falling behind relatively, not maintaining the level of middle class participation of earlier arriving cohorts.

The number and proportion of Hispanic households who are middle class is quite variable across states and regions. California has the largest group of Hispanic middle class households numerically, and there are large numbers in Texas and the nearby states also. In Florida, the gains for foreign-born Hispanics are greater than for native-born Hispanic households. In contrast, in New York-New Jersey there are no gains and sometimes losses in the Hispanic middle class.

Can we feel confident that time will solve the problem of assimilation and upward economic mobility? Not completely, despite the positive gains and the increasing number of middle class Hispanic households. More recent cohorts are not advancing at the same pace as those same age cohorts at an earlier point in time. The analysis of income inequality suggests that the same inequality which we have observed in the population as a whole, is appearing for Hispanics as well. Some Hispanic households are doing well, but the data suggest that the Hispanic population may well bifurcate into a well-established middle class and younger and poorer marginalized populations.


The debates about immigration and its impacts on U.S. society are nowhere stronger than over the issue of whether or not current immigration is similar to, or different from, the immigration processes of the last great wave of immigration. On one hand, a number of studies celebrate the contributions of immigrants and their future success in the United States. On the other, there are the stories of struggling immigrants who are often in poverty, dependent on welfare support to get by. The contrast between those who celebrate the immigrant success story and those who emphasize the difficulties facing new immigrants is a contrast between those who feel that time will eventually create a blended society that will be enriched by the new arrivals, and those who feel that the current waves of immigrants may well create a new underclass in the inner cities of America.

Within the general question about immigrant success there is a much more specific question about which and how many immigrants will achieve the American dream — joining the middle class with all of its characteristics and benefits. The extent that the new immigrant population is able to follow the same upwardly mobile paths forged by the native-born and join the middle class constitutes strong evidence of successful economic assimilation into U.S. society. Making it to the middle class with a stable income, homeownership, and greater educational opportunities for their children has always been the aim of native-born working families in the United States. The extent to which immigrants can follow this path as well constitutes a significant measure of how well the new blended society enables equal participation.

The debate about immigrant success is important because it is a debate about the future trajectory of the foreign born. Moreover, to the extent that it asks about assimilation to the middle class, it is asking the most important question pertaining to economic success: How well do new groups achieve economic integration into the larger U.S. society? More significantly the debate provides insight into an associated discussion about the general economic progress of American society as a whole. In fact, since the 1980s there has been a growing concern about increasing income inequality and the vanishing middle class. Thus, the questions about the trajectories of new immigrants are questions that also are being asked about the native-born population: whether the previous paths of upward mobility and greater success are being changed and whether the old paths are still available to native-born and foreign-born alike. The questions are important because if it is difficult for the native-born baby boomers and their children to join the middle class, does it mean that the new immigrants will be even less likely to make the transition?

A recent analysis in Southern California has painted a very positive picture of Latino progress in incomes and the housing market. This mid-1990s study suggested that there is a substantial and growing Latino middle class, and that the foreign-born Latino population will follow a similar path of middle class success and integration (Rodriguez, 1996). A nationwide study by the same author extends the analysis to make a broader argument that newcomers are doing what newcomers have always done: slowly, often painfully, but quite assuredly embracing the cultural norms of the United States (Rodriguez, 1999). Based on an analysis of citizenship, homeownership, language acquisition, and intermarriage, he concludes that immigrants are assimilating today, in the same way that they did in the past.

In contrast to the sanguine views in the Rodriguez studies, a new analysis of Latinos in California raises questions about the progress of Latinos (Lopez, Ramirez, and Rochin, 1999). Without specifically considering whether Latinos are joining the middle class, the report emphasizes that they earn significantly less than other ethnic groups in California and that the lower levels of education for most immigrants are a basic part of the explanation for these lower earnings levels. Perhaps the most surprising conclusion is the finding that low levels of education continue into the third generation. Only about 10 percent of third generation Latinos have university degrees (bachelors or more advanced degrees) while 30 percent of the native-born non-Latino are at this education level (Lopez et al. 1999). The findings suggest that if there is progress it is a slow upward trajectory.

Given the quite different findings with alternative methodologies, it is worthwhile re-examining the progress of Hispanics and in this study I ask about the extent to which the middle class way of life is available to the new Hispanic immigrants. Is there evidence that the new Hispanic immigrants, especially those admitted to the United States in the decades of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, are following the path of earlier immigrants who moved up to comfortable middle class life styles?

Defining the Middle Class

There is no official definition of the middle class, no agreed upon classification of those who are middle class and those who are not. However, the notion of the middle class is central to modern American life. Middle class concepts are pervasive and most Americans would identify themselves as middle class — either lower middle class or upper middle class — rather than working class or wealthy (Parker, 1972). This conceptualization of the middle class has grown out of notions embedded in the American idea of equality and the ideals of upward mobility. There is a strong feeling that the United States is a nation, at least for white America, with a broad homogeneous social middle class.

Levy and Michel (1986) suggest, that although the standard is not officially defined anywhere, it exists in subtle forms from casual conversation to television advertisements. The standard includes material goods, a home and at least one car, other consumer items like televisions, dishwashers, personal computers, but also the funds to educate and raise healthy children and provide support for a comfortable retirement. It is tied to educational attainment and occupation but beyond these generalizations it is difficult to provide a universally accepted definition.

Definitions of the middle class are also complicated because the basket of material goods that has been associated with middle class life-styles has changed over time. For example, a two bath, two car home is now closer to the norm for most middle class households than the one bath-one car home of the 1950s. The composition of the household has changed too, from one worker to two earners. This shifting economic and demographic context makes it difficult to place boundaries on the middle class. Although definitions are not straight-forward, and in the end are inextricably dependent on the quantitative measures that we use, it is possible to provide a range within which we can examine the progress of the population as a whole and the progress of major ethnic groups of the population.

Most working definitions suggest some form of economic middle class, but within the idea of an economic definition there is a distinction between a specific income and the notion of a market basket of goods that represents a middle-income standard of living. In the end, however, most definitions depend heavily on an income classification. Even Leigh (1994), who did use the notion of a consumer basket of goods, translated that basket into an income range. Leigh used a government-defined consumer basket of goods that purported to buy a middle class standard of living in 1967 and updated that definition to the late 1980s. Under this definition, the middle class was defined as 50 to 200 percent of current year median earnings.

Another working definition of the middle class used a threshold notion — what proportion of the population exceeded some income barrier. For example, Rodriguez (1996) in his study of Hispanics, chose the median income for the total population as a threshold. He also used total household incomes, arguing that pooled earnings are more important and that the relevant measure is household income rather than family or individual earnings. In contrast to the studies of thresholds and ranges, Reed (1999) uses a ratio of income between the 75th and 25th percentiles. Although she was primarily interested in income inequality, by definition it is a measure of the middle 50 percent of the income distribution.

The Population Reference Bureau used a range of incomes linked to the poverty line. In their definition, the middle class ranges from 200 to 499 percent (or in other words from two to five times) of the poverty line for a household of four (Figure 1). The justification for this categorization is twofold. First, using the poverty line as a control level, ties the measure to a recognized support level for a family of four (a household), and second, the measure is sufficiently broad to capture both lower middle and upper middle incomes. The categorization yields a growing middle class from 1940 to 1970 and relative stability since that time, although there has been a modest negative change in the last half decade. The 40 percent proportion of total U.S. households is consistent with the broad findings of Levy (1998) and similar to the income findings of Leigh (1994).


Graph: Economic Status of the US Population, 1940-1996


But, as Lowry and Michael (1986) note, income alone is an insufficient measure of the middle class lifestyle even though it is income which allows the purchase of the material goods that are an essential part of the middle class life style. Homeownership is one of those critical purchases and is central part of the middle class way of life and therefore integrating homeownership into the definition is important. Moreover, homeownership has taken on symbolic meaning beyond the value and assets of the home and is interconnected with the notions of upward and outward mobility — of increasing assets and suburban location. Moreover, the role of homeownership has become more important in the past half century. Before 1940, substantially less than half of U.S. households owned their own home, but since 1960 the average has climbed to well above 65 percent in the country as a whole. Clearly, owning a house is now the norm and is a central part of the middle class life style. Household surveys reiterate the basic desire for homeownership and its pervasiveness across incomes (Heskin, 1983).

Inequality and the Declining Middle Class

While the middle class standard of living has become an icon in American culture, there appears to be a declining ability to purchase it, certainly by a single breadwinner (Leigh, 1994). Earnings for the majority of U.S. households have not gained very much against inflation since the early 1970s (Newman, 1993; Levy, 1998). The average wage has been declining since the early 1970s. But an even greater issue has been the increase in the number and wealth of very high income Americans. The top 1 percent of American households now account for about 37 percent of the private net worth of the United States. The percentage of households earning in the middle-income ranges has declined (Table 1), and the prospect for attaining homeownership, the most important item of the middle class dream, is increasingly dependent on both husband and wife working full-time. In households without two earners, the chances of entering the homeowner market are significantly lower. The outcome is such that Leigh suggests that the broad middle class has been split apart into increasingly divided lower and upper middle class segments.


Table: Proportion of US Households with Incomes in the Lowest, Middle, and Highest Quintiles


Most studies do find a decline in the size of the middle class. Levy (1998) used a general income category of $30,000 to $80,000 for ages 25-54 to capture prime earning years and showed that between 1973 and 1996 white non-Hispanic middle income families decreased from 66 to 55 percent. Hispanic middle income families declined from 51 to 39 percent. At the same time, the groups in poverty and at the upper income levels increased. Overall, Levy finds that the income distribution is more spread out, the middle class is “squeezed” and that there is an increasing gap between rich and poor. An outcome of this gap is a decreasing ability to enter the homeowner market.

Both anecdotal and census data on incomes suggest that the upward trend in incomes and wealth may be far less certain than just two decades ago. The ingrained view that new entrants to the labor market would improve on their parent’s position may no longer be true. Newman (1994) describes the anxiety of the baby-boomers who are having more difficulty moving up the economic ladder and in turn are now concerned about whether they will be able to provide more for their children than their parents did for them. There is concern that the children of the baby boomers will have to settle for less, for poorer schools and residence in less affluent communities. Some baby boomers with good jobs and often two incomes are worrying about whether they can support the life style they grew up with.

Overall, the consumption package that we associate with the middle class is becoming less affordable. Housing, health care, and education are increasingly expensive (private school costs are now a significant part of the middle class life style in metropolitan areas where the public schools have declined in prestige and quality). A major part of the increased cost of the middle class package is the costs of housing. Younger households are having difficulty in entering the owner market. There has been an approximately 7 to 8 percent drop in the ownership rate, and overall the age profile of homeowners moved up during the 1970s and 1980s. Married couples entering the housing market in the 1990s are older than those who entered the market three decades ago, a further indication that it takes longer to achieve the financial security that makes ownership feasible.

It is in this context of a squeeze on middle incomes that we are experiencing the largest immigration flows since the turn of the last century and that we are about to assimilate the newest and largest wave of immigrants since that time. But that assimilation will occur in a very different social milieu than even three decades ago. While the American myth of hard work and successful outcomes, rising with merit from humble beginnings is still a central part of the American ethos, the emphasis on individualism and the move to less government has created a changed political and social climate. The rise in inequality, reduced welfare benefits and less social support services will undoubtedly influence the process of assimilation, but in just what way is not at all clear. In addition, the last wave of immigrants was assimilated over a three-decade period of expanding social intervention. The context is different at the beginning of the 21st century.

Assimilating to the Middle Class

For immigrants, the process of moving up is also the process of economic assimilation. While the assimilation process is multi-dimensioned, certainly much of the process depends on success in the economic realm, the process of becoming structurally similar to the host population. In economic terms, full integration would mean that the occupational and income distributions would be very similar across all ethnic and racial groups.

As for the native-born, the changes in the economy have similarly emphasized the importance of education and human capital. Skills, and by extension education, are critical to the process of making economic gains in the “new economy”. In a context of societal economic change, time of entry also takes on an important role in the process of assimilation. It is true that some recent immigrants are entering the United States and the middle class simultaneously, but in general new immigrants move up the economic ladder slowly and the second generation has a higher probability of being middle class. Additionally, the process of assimilation is influenced by the context of entry. Immigrants who enter during a period of economic expansion are certainly going to have an easier time in moving up than immigrants who arrive in times of economic recession.

Thus, the process of assimilation occurs with changes in household and family incomes and against the backdrop of changes in the economy. In the past two decades, there has been considerable variation in household and family incomes. While median household income has increased only slightly in the past three decades there has been considerable variation from one period to the next (Figure 2). After the recession of the early 1980s, median incomes increased steadily from 1983 to 1989 and then declined during the recession in the early 1990s to nearly the same as the 1980 medians. The economic recovery after 1993 has brought median incomes back to the levels slightly above those of 1990. The fact that a very large number of new immigrants have entered the United States to stay during this 20-year period has subjected them to a roller coaster of income increases and decreases with very little change for those who entered two decades ago. At the same time, those who entered the United States in the early 1990s entered at the beginning of a decade long economic expansion with all the associated positive economic outcomes of an expanding economy.


Graph: Median Household Income, 1980-1999


Of course median incomes hide very different patterns and paths for varying groups of the native and foreign-born. Median household incomes vary by region, family types and the age of household heads. Medians vary from less than $20,000 to more than $50,000 depending on the group (Figure 3). Median incomes are higher in California for the total population but larger in New York for four-person family incomes, and there is nearly an $8,000 dollar difference across the states in median incomes. Median income is higher for older age groups, an unexceptional finding, and female headed households and non-family females are quite low on the median income scale. The range for immigrant groups is equally large, from $20,000 to nearly $50,000. Native-born Asians have the highest household median incomes and foreign-born Hispanics the lowest.

Snap shots of household income over the 20-year period show that while native-born whites have increased their median household incomes slightly, consistent with the peaks of Figure 4, other groups have had quite varying patterns of adjusted household median income. The changes in median income for the ethnic groups in Table 2 are a result of two forces: new native-born households that have been created over the two decades and new in-migrant households. The resultant median incomes are the combination of cohort changes and new household formation.

In the context of very high levels of in-migration, what are the changing standings of immigrant groups? The cross-sectional comparison of median incomes for native-born and foreign-born groups reveals both increases and decreases (Table 2). Both foreign-born and native-born ethnic groups had increases in their median household incomes in the 1980s. In contrast, all groups lost ground in the 1990s, although native-born whites held their own in these cross sectional snapshots. This is not to say that individual native- or foreign-born households did not increase their median incomes over the whole period. However, as a group there were modest to severe declines in the last decade of the 1990s. Most groups have yet to recover to the levels of median household income of 1990. Even so, despite the declines in median income in the 1990s, all groups except for foreign-born Hispanics had adjusted median household incomes, which were larger in 1999 than they were in 1980. The substantial decline in the foreign-born Hispanic household median income is clearly a reflection of the very large number of new, relatively low skilled Mexican and Central American immigrants. In contrast, both foreign-born and native-born Asian households had median incomes which were significantly larger than those for the native-born white households.

Income distributions provide an alternative window on the changes in median incomes and yield a more nuanced understanding of what has been happening to overall median household incomes in the last two decades. The earlier discussion of the total population identified a widening gap between the lowest quartile and the top quartile, and the table showed the related finding that the proportion of households with middle incomes is decreasing. Overall, income distributions for the total population and for native- and foreign-born ethnic groups have become more peaked and have shifted closer to the left axis. This is especially true for the foreign-born Hispanic population (Figure 4). Clearly, the distributions changed fundamentally in the 1990s, and they are a visible reflection of the very large increase in recent low skilled Hispanic immigrants. In particular, the foreign-born Hispanic population has had a very large increase in the number and proportion of households who have very low incomes. The “shaded area” in the figure captures the increase and the curve itself documents the shift to the left that is occurring in the foreign-born Hispanic population. There are also important findings from the analysis of the native-born Hispanic income distributions. Between 1980 and 1990, the income distribution “flattened”, and there was a considerable increase in the proportion of households towards the tail of the distribution. The other major finding from the graphs is the emergence of a peak of low income native-born Hispanics and a small secondary peak of native-born Hispanics at the median income. This suggests that by 1998 there is emerging evidence of a bifurcation in the income distribution for native-born Hispanic households. This bifurcation is even greater if we add the foreign-born Hispanic population to the native-born distribution.

Obviously, incomes have been changing, and for some groups more dramatically than for others. Within this general shift in incomes, I wish to focus on what is happening to the ethnic middle class and specifically to the Hispanic component of that class. What are the gains, and are they distributed equally? As we will see, the data provide a basis for cautious optimism, but it is tempered nevertheless with real concerns about the future trajectories of this very large and growing ethnic group in the United States. The report re-examines an earlier analysis of the Hispanic middle class and uses this a stepping stone to a more complete study of the trajectories of the Hispanic immigrants who are “making it” in America.

The Rodriguez Study of the Hispanic Middle Class

In the introduction, I noted that an earlier analysis of the California middle class painted an extremely upbeat picture of the new Hispanic middle class (Rodriguez,1996). In that study, Hispanics are viewed as “making it” in America, the presumption being that time will create a new successful Hispanic immigrant middle class. Rodriguez reported that more than half of U.S.-born Latino households met the criteria for the middle class and were rapidly achieving parity with the overall Southern California population. Although foreign-born households lagged, they also showed signs of joining the middle class; in fact nearly a third of the foreign-born Latino population met the criteria for the middle class. The study concluded that there is considerable social mobility amongst both native-born and foreign-born Latinos and that the longer immigrant families reside in the United States the more likely they are to become middle class. Clearly, these findings are different from the studies that show that Hispanics in general are losing ground and that the trajectories of the future for both U.S.-born and foreign-born Latinos is less sanguine.

The Rodriguez findings are, however, subject to some important methodological caveats. As in this study, the gains in middle class status are closely linked to the statistical definitions and it is here that there are problems with his study. The middle class definition is based on median income for the total population. Rodriguez then asks if Hispanic households above that threshold. Apart from the observation that Hispanic households who are above that level could be said to be equal with the average level of the population, there is little or no justification for the measure. More troubling is the use of the median for Los Angeles County while the data are from the five county southern California region. If the median is appropriate, the five county median would be the appropriate measure. Equally troubling is the use of an “either/or definition” of the middle class. In the Rodriguez study, income and homeownership are used interchangeably. But as we have argued in this paper, they are intertwined aspects of the aspiration to middle class status. Finally, the use of proportions without the accompanying data on absolute numbers has a tendency to overstate the gains of Hispanic households.

A replication of the Rodriguez (1996) study for the United States as a whole provides a more subtle evaluation of his findings and sets the context for a more careful analysis of middle-class status. The replication uses Rodriguez’ definition of the middle class (above the U.S. median household income for each of the years, 1980, 1990, and 1998 or home ownership). The data are drawn from the Public Use Microdata samples for 1980 and 1990 and from the Current Population Survey for 1998.

The replication of the Rodriguez study for the United States provides both confirmation and caution, themes that will emerge in the larger analysis in the next section. There are really two stories within the replication, one about the absolute gains of Hispanic households and another about their relative position as middle class households. There is no doubt that the absolute gains provide an optimistic picture of gains for the Hispanic population. There were approximately 1.6 million native-born Hispanic households who qualified as middle income under the threshold definition of above the median income and another 1.65 foreign-born Hispanic households who met the criteria in 1980 (Table 3). Using income or homeownership as criteria increases dramatically, the numbers of the middle class by almost a million. Thus, if we use the “either-or” definitions then there are more than 2.2 million households which were middle class in 1980, and that number grew to five million households in 1998. Using the Rodriguez criteria it is clear that the Hispanic middle class is large and increasing.


Graph: Household Income Variation by Selected States and for Age and Household Consumption for the US in 1997
Graph: Income Distributions by Immigrant Status


The story is still positive when we examine the relative gains, but there are some questions about just how much progress is being made. In 1998, 42.4 percent of native-born Hispanic households in the United States earned more than the median income. This proportion is a real increase from the 1980 proportion of 39.9 percent (Figure 5). The combination of both the threshold income and ownership boosts the proportion to nearly two thirds in 1998. However, the results are less positive for the foreign-born and even with the expansive definition used here, the data show a decline in the proportions (Figure 5).


Graph: Hispanic Households Above the Income Median or Owners as a Proportion of all Hispanic Households


Unlike the Rodriguez findings, which argue that Hispanic households have reached parity for California, neither native-born nor foreign-born Hispanics have reached parity with the U.S. population as a whole. When we examine the middle-income and ownership gains in context with the growth of the Hispanic population, they are not quite so optimistic. The native-born white population made gains in income and ownership, though there was a small decline in the combined effect of income and ownership between 1980 and 1990. In contrast although native-born Hispanics made up some ground, the foreign-born as a group are less likely, proportionately to be in the middle class.

The central issue then, focuses on two questions: How real are the gains for the native-born Hispanics, and what are the levels of change for the foreign-born under more realistic measures of the middle class and in comparison with changes in the middle class population as a whole? On one hand, the notion of using alternative measures of middle class status, median income or home-ownership resonates with our notions of the way in which households make it up the economic ladder. Under this definition, households may enjoy some of the facets of middle class status by owning a home even if they do not have the income which is in the middle income range. On the other hand, using an “either/or measure” may be capturing households who are in the very low end of the ownership market, housing which may be in poorer neighborhoods and inner city areas, without the concomitant associates of the middle class life style. A more complete approach following my earlier arguments suggests that both income and ownership are essential components of the measure of middle class status.

Re-Examining the Hispanic Middle Class

The remainder of this paper uses a combination of income and ownership to measure middle class status, a standard which I believe is closer to the heart of the arguments about what it takes to be middle class. That argument emphasizes that middle class status is a combination of both income level and housing status. It captures the notion that both the ability to buy the middle class life style and the commitment to and integration into the local community represented by ownership, are essential parts of middle class status. Thus, this re-examination of the middle class focuses on the combination of income and ownership as essential criteria for entry to the middle class. Of course, in this paper as in other research on the middle class, the numbers and proportions which are discussed in the report, are a direct function of the definitions. Different definitions will indeed provide different estimates of the middle class. To provide the greatest possible detail, I also report the numbers and proportions by the income criteria separately.

The measure of income follows that illustrated in Figure 3: household income between 200 and 499 percent of the poverty line. Income in this range was between $16,000 and $24000 in 1980 and between $32000 and $83000 in 1999. This latter income range is quite similar to the $30,000 to $80,000 middle income range suggested by Levy (1998). He further restricted it for families in the prime earning years of 25-54 and although we will examine all household heads 18 years and older we will also consider two finer age breakdowns of the data. As discussed above, ownership can be seen as a further constraint on membership in the middle class. Other constraints could be added, pension participation, health coverage, and so on, but many of these additions are in fact highly correlated with income and ownership.

Absolute and Proportional Gains

It is clear that there are important positive changes occurring for Hispanic households. These more constrained definitions of the middle class also show an increase in Hispanic middle class households in the last two decades. In the most recent year for which the Current Population Survey provides data, there are only a little more than 3 million middle income Hispanic households, about equally divided between native and foreign-born. The number of Hispanic households who meet the middle class criterion is smaller or course, about 1.8 million households (Table 4). While the number of middle-income households are not that different from the Rodriguez results, the strict and more realistic definition of the middle class (income and ownership) provides a measure which is significantly less than that of Rodriguez (compare tables 3 and 4).


Table: Hispanic Middle Income and Middle Class Households


Still, the results are impressive — a gain of almost a million middle class Hispanic households in a 20-year period. Although the gain in native-born households was smaller than that of foreign-born households, both groups increased their proportion of all middle class households, from 3.5 percent of all middle class households to 5.9 percent 20 years later (Table 5). This increase in both numbers and proportions suggests that the economic prosperity, despite the downturns, is lifting the new Hispanic households, both native and foreign-born.

The relative story is also quite positive. The proportion of Hispanic native-born households who are middle income is about 40 percent and was relatively constant between 1980 and 1990. Similarly, the proportion who are middle class has been nearly constant (Figure 6). This is quite notable in the context of relatively high fertility and large household size, and even more remarkable in the light of overall declines in the overall proportion of middle-income and middle class households. The story is much less compelling for Hispanic foreign-born households who have lost ground over time. It is important to emphasize that even though these are cross sectional measures, they are measures of the level of all foreign-born households. That is, if the newly entered foreign-born were either joining the middle class or able to move into the middle class easily (say at the rates of earlier arrivals) there would be relative constancy in the proportions over time. That is not the case.


Graph: Hispanic Middle Income and Middle Class Households, a) Total Households and b) for Ages 18-34 and 35-64


The story about middle class penetration for older Hispanic households is remarkably compelling. While all middle-income and middle class households were having difficulty maintaining their position, older native-born Hispanic households were more likely to be in the middle-income range or the middle class with the passage of time. Keep in mind these are cross sectional analyses which will be extended with an analysis of cohorts later in the paper. The story for foreign-born Hispanic households is not nearly as positive. Younger foreign-born households are very unlikely to be in the middle class, hardly a surprising finding, but the levels are low and declining even for older foreign-born Hispanic households. They are significantly less likely to be members of the middle class. However, because this is a measure of the proportion of all Hispanics who are middle class it will reflect the very large number of less skilled workers and households who will have to move up if the gains of past groups are to be repeated.

That Hispanic native-born households are holding their own is strong evidence of the upward economic process at work — clearly some of the native-born are joining the middle class. However, the results for the foreign-born highlight the issue of their future trajectories and the length of time it may take to make the penetration of the middle class. Foreign-born Hispanic households as a group have further to go today than the foreign-born of 20 years ago. In addition, the fact that the middle class proportion is so much lower than the middle-income group is a reflection of the difficulty of entering the homeowner market and achieving middle class status.


Table: Hispanic Middle Income and Middle Class Households as a Proportion of All Middle Class Households


Hispanic Middle Class Penetration in the Context of Middle Class Growth

To understand the levels of Hispanic penetration of the middle class it is useful to put the increases in the middle class in the context of the overall growth of the middle class. Are Hispanic households reaching parity with white native-born populations? Are the increases in middle income and middle class households, about the same as the increase in the Hispanic population as a whole?

Examining middle-income and middle class penetration in the context of overall changes in the proportion of middle class households provides a more cautionary tale than that of the absolute numbers and the relative percentages of Hispanic households who are middle class. While the growth of middle class native-born white households was greater than the growth in the native-born white population as a whole, the evidence for Hispanic households is more mixed. Native-born middle-income Hispanic households held their own, not quite at parity, but without significant losses (Figure 7). The situation for foreign-born households is less sanguine. Fewer of them are middle class households in 1999 than were middle class households in 1970. While in 1980, Hispanic foreign-born middle class households were about a percent less than their proportion in the total population, by 1999 they were 2.2 percent less than their total proportion of all households. Of course, it is related to the very large increases of young (and unskilled) recent migrants who arrived in large numbers in the good economic times of the 1990s, but who are proportionately less likely to be doing as well as earlier arrivals. The extent to which the foreign-born do penetrate the middle class will be examined further with an analysis of cohort changes for second and third generation immigrants.


Graph: Change in Middle Income and Middle Class Households in Proportion to Total Population


In sum, as so often is the case in discussions of the immigrant story, the outcomes are more complicated than a glass full or glass empty description. Those who would see immigration as an unmitigated blessing must recognize the implications of increasing numbers of foreign-born Hispanics who are less likely to be members of either the middle-income group or of the middle class. On the other hand the view of immigration as unmitigated disaster, must be tempered by the real gains being achieved by native-born Hispanic households. The question, as always, is about their generalizability, variability, and the changes over time.

Regional Variations in Middle Class Entry

Regional contexts significantly impact the ability of Hispanic households to penetrate the middle class. The analysis examines four of the largest Hispanic immigrant destinations, California, New York-New Jersey, Texas-Arizona-New Mexico, and Florida.

The numerically largest Hispanic middle class concentration is in California (Table 6) where the combined native-born and foreign-born middle-income group is moving toward a million households. Middle class Hispanic households in California are well over half a million. For both the middle income and middle class groupings, foreign-born Hispanic households are now larger in California than the number of native-born Hispanic households. The numbers are of a similar magnitude in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico but in these states, the native-born dominate both middle income and middle class groups. The absolute numbers are much smaller in New York-New Jersey, and in that region there was an absolute decline in the number of households who were middle income and middle class between 1980 and 1990. The small recovery since 1990 has still not brought the numbers back to the levels of 1980. Florida has a disproportionately foreign-born middle class, the impact of the series of Cuban migrations to Florida beginning in the 1980s. Those numbers have grown to the point where the foreign-born middle class is almost four times the size of the native-born group.


Table: Hispanic Middle Incomes and Middle Class Households by State, 1980 - 1990 - 1999


The percentage increase in middle class numbers is quite variable, both by time and place. There were losses in New York-New Jersey, but very large percentage increases in Florida and Texas-Arizona-New Mexico in the 1990s. The proportionate gains are greater for the foreign-born population than the native-born population, but this is largely a function of the quite small initial populations. Over the two-decade period, the middle-income and middle class groups have nearly all doubled (with exceptions in New York-New Jersey); in Florida, in some instances, they have increased three times.

There is considerable regional variation in the proportion of middle class Hispanic households across regions (Figure 8). In California, the proportions of Hispanic middle income households are high, over 40 percent, and higher than for the population as a whole. Thus, it is clear that the native-born Hispanic households are doing well in California — support for the trends shown by Rodriguez if not for the absolute levels. While the levels for middle class status are quite a bit lower than those for middle incomes, an effect of the more expensive housing market, these rates too, are not different from the population as a whole. Foreign-born households, consistent with our story in general, are at lower levels and more importantly are not maintaining position. There is a notable drop between 1980 and 1999 in the level of foreign-born Hispanic middle-income households. The proportion that is middle class is significantly lower than the proportion for middle income. New York-New Jersey has a pattern of increasing followed by decreasing proportions, and the level of middle class penetration is much lower than for the other regions especially for the foreign-born. In Texas and the nearby states, the proportional levels of Hispanic middle income are high, though not as high as in California. However, the middle class proportions are as high as in California. In Florida, native-born Hispanic households are holding their own over time and have rates of middle income and middle class penetration which are similar to rates for the society as a whole.


Graph: Hispanic Middle Income and Middle Class Households as a Proportion of all Hispanic Households by Region


Florida constitutes somewhat of an exception to the general trends in other states. In Florida the relative proportion of the Hispanic population which is middle income is as high as in California, but unlike California has not declined (the proportion who are middle income increased and then stabilized at 1980 levels). Even more notable is the fact that the foreign-born population in Florida has middle class penetration rates that are like the native-born penetration rates in California and Texas, and two and a half times higher than the native-born Hispanics in New York. This finding emphasizes the regional variation in middle class penetration and highlights the findings for California and Texas where indeed there is strong evidence of an emerging middle class Hispanic population.

At least a part of the explanation for the strong differences in the Hispanic middle class is related to the varying composition of the Hispanic population in these states. New York has very large proportions of Dominican and Puerto Rican Hispanic populations and Florida is dominated by Cuban origin populations. The contrast between New York and Florida is clearly a contrast between relatively well-educated Cuban origin populations and much less-educated and lower-skilled populations from the Dominican Republic and from Puerto Rico. About 15 percent of the New York Hispanic population is from the Dominican Republic and another 30 percent from Puerto Rico. In contrast, Florida’s Hispanic population is approximately 55 percent Cuban. The findings about middle class penetration emphasize again the important role of human capital, the education and skills that immigrants bring with them or that they acquire after they arrive in the United States. The findings also raise the central question of the future trajectories of those without the human capital or with large families to support.

The growth in the middle-income and middle class populations is also different in different geographic settings (Figure 9). Texas and Florida had large growths in the native-born middle-income and middle class populations. However, in Florida only a very small part of that growth was from Hispanic households. In contrast in Texas, nearly half the native-born middle class growth was from Hispanic households. Both states had quite large growths of the native-born Hispanic middle class. California and New York provide other contrasts. In California there was a very small, almost non-existent middle class growth of the native-born population but a very large foreign-born increase in the middle class. New York-New Jersey is notable for the lack of any middle class growth at all. In California, more than 350,000 foreign-born Hispanic households are now members of the middle class and over 600,000 are in the middle income range. The changes in California stand out amongst the much smaller changes in the other regions.


Graph: Growth in the Middle Class by State, 1980-1999


The geographic variability is important. It is not sufficiently informative to talk about national patterns as those patterns vary remarkably from state to state. To reiterate, while in Texas the growth of the proportion of the native-born Hispanic middle class was equal to the total middle class growth, in Florida the Hispanic middle class growth was only a few thousands and was dwarfed by the growth of the non-Hispanic native-born middle class growth.

In the context of the middle class as a whole, Hispanic households are doing well. They are more than 17 percent of the middle class population in California (adding native-born and foreign-born together) and 21 percent in Texas (Table 7). The proportion is nearly 12 percent in Florida but it is negligible in New York-New Jersey. The proportions are high for the foreign-born population in California and Florida though as the Hispanic population is a very large proportion of all foreign-born in Florida and California these proportions are not equivalent. It is still true that these groups have not reached parity with their proportion of the total population. Currently California and Texas are respectively more than a fifth and a quarter Hispanic, but the levels for the middle class are still 3 or 4 percent behind those levels.


Table: Change in the Proportion of Hispanics Who are Middle Income and Middle Class


Becoming Middle Class: Timing, Cohorts, and the Second Generation

The previous cross sectional analysis provides evidence that native-born Hispanics are making significant economic progress in certain contexts and clearly there is a substantial numerical increase. However, the cross sectional analysis does not tell us what is happening to groups of households over time. Do they gain or slip, on average, over two or more decades. Studies of variations in middle class penetration by time of arrival and a test of the progress of the second and third generation Hispanic households, provide additional important information on the progress of middle class status households.


The general expectation for immigrants is that households arriving earlier are more likely to have moved up the economic ladder than those who arrive later in time. The assimilation literature in general emphasizes that the process of becoming acculturated and assimilated economically requires time.

In general, arrivals by 1980 are at or above the average proportion in the middle class. Thus, for the United States as a whole, the middle class proportion is 23.9 percent for arrivals between 1960 and 1970 and 23.5 percent for arrivals between 1970 and 1980 (Figure 10). Overall, the rates are not that different for the older age cohort and similar to the average levels of middle class penetration for the United States as a whole, but for both groups, the level of penetration is not sustained for the arrivals after 1980.


Graph: Proportion of Foreign Born Hispanic Households who Are Middle Class by Year of Entry


Recent arrivals are very unlikely to be in the middle class. It is this finding that explains the overall lower level of middle class penetration by the foreign-born. In turn, this leads to the question of whether 20 years is a threshold. And whether it will require at least this long or longer for the foreign-born to make the transition to the middle class or whether the post-1980 arrivals will have a much more difficult time of making it to the middle class at all. If there are marked differences in skills between those who arrived before 1980 and who we see joining the middle class, and those who arrived later, then the trajectories of the two groups may not match and may continue to diverge over time. It is not possible to provide a complete answer to the question until the 2000 census and it is just this question that is at the heart of the continuing debate about immigrant progress. Some of the cohort data discussed later in the paper provide a possible set of scenarios of what may happen.

There are substantial differences across the states and some interesting reversals in the rates of penetration by time of arrival. Florida stands out for the generally very high levels of penetration of the middle class, especially for the older cohorts, and the “drop-off” in levels of penetration occurs only after 1990. Again, the levels of penetration are visibly lower in New York-New Jersey. In the context of the average levels of middle class participation in the US as a whole, the outcomes for three of the four regions are quite notable. All regions except New York-New Jersey outperform the overall US average for arrivals before 1980. Those who arrived earlier have made important strides in joining the middle class and their proportions are not distinguishable from the total population. Florida is notable, especially with the proportions of the older age cohorts. These findings further raise the fundamental question of whether assimilation is working and whether we can we expect the later arrivals to also move up and join the middle class. To answer these questions we can examine cohort changes.


Following a cohort over time is one way of asking about the progress of groups. By plotting the progress of three foreign-born Hispanic age cohorts who entered the United States by 1980 and three native born Hispanic age groups, it is possible to evaluate the extent to which particular groups are making progress over time. The evaluation compares the proportion of the 20-29 age group who were middle class in 1980 with the proportion of those who were middle class when they were 30-39, 10 years later. Similarly, it can show how many of the age cohort 30-39, who were 40-49 10 years later, are middle class. In this analysis it is not possible to follow the individuals in an age cohort on a year to year basis, but it is possible to examine the group of 20-29 year olds in 1980 and compare them with the 30-39 group ten years later, and then in turn to check that group ten years later still when they are 40-49. There will have been some deaths and some households will have migrated away, but the change in the aggregate is relatively small. Changes in the native-born will be greater for the oldest groups but mortality does not change much between 40 and 60 so we can feel relatively confident that we are capturing the overall changes in the relative economic position of the cohort. I also examine 20-29 year households in 1990 but I can only follow them until 1999. For the foreign-born, I control the cohort by examining the age group 10 years later only for those who had arrived by 1980. New arrivals are not included in the cohort.

For the United States as a whole, young native-born Hispanics are making significant movements into the middle class, but foreign-born Hispanic households make much slower progress and reach only about two-thirds the level of the total native-born (Figure 11). The two-decade increase for native-born Hispanic households is from 15.4 percent to 35.6 percent, slightly more than the position of the 30-39 cohort 10 years later when they are 40-49. In other words, the younger group’s trajectory is faster than that of the older age group. That same group (the 40-49 year olds) 10 years later have lost ground. In other words the gains occur early and are not always sustained. The 20-29 year old native-born Hispanic households in 1990 made real progress by 1999, but did not quite reach the level of the earlier cohort. All native-born cohorts increase their representation at younger ages, but at the older age groups, there is a clear falling off in the ability to maintain middle class status.


Graph: Changes in the Proportion of Middle Class Households by Cohort for the United States


The increases overall do not bring the Hispanic middle class into the same levels of the general population, but at the same time the total native-born population is also having difficulty maintaining its middle class status. The starting levels are significantly higher, but while the youngest age cohort does make progress, it does not reach the levels of the same age cohorts in 1980. Nor does the Hispanic native-born reach the levels of the total native-born.

Foreign-born groups move upward but at much slower rates, and older groups had losses on average. The most striking finding of the cohort paths is that the foreign-born make much less significant progress over time and that 1990 arrivals do not have strong upward trajectories.

The state patterns are quite variable. In every case the youngest native-born Hispanics are making significant advances into the middle class (Figure 12). In some cases the proportion of the native-born Hispanics in the middle class doubles as the cohort ages 10 years. This is true in Florida and California where, in general, native-born Hispanic households are outperforming the population as a whole. At the same time, the decline in middle class representation in the older cohort again raises questions about the ability of the Hispanic native-born households to maintain the middle class status as retirement begins and income is reduced.


Graph: Changes in the Proportion of Middle Class Households by Cohort by Region


Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico and Florida have similar patterns in their cohort trajectories for both native-born and foreign-born Hispanic households. Young native-born groups in 1980 have increased their participation levels and the youngest cohorts have moved up to levels that are similar to households in the aggregate. At the same time the 30-39 year old groups are not moving up as quickly and after 1990 the paths are stable or declining. Native-born Hispanics who were 30-39 or older in 1980 have not managed to sustain their middle class levels. Foreign-born cohorts are lower in initial levels of middle class participation and have slower trajectories of moving up to the middle class. New York-New Jersey is an extreme case. Hispanic households in New York-New Jersey are far from the middle class participation rates of Texas and Florida. The California native-born are doing well and reaching for middle class status.

Several summary findings emerge from the analysis of middle class cohorts by state and native versus foreign-born. The most pervasive finding is of convergence. The native-born Hispanic groups are converging on ratios of middle class penetration which hover around 30 percent. But as I noted in the previous paragraph, there are very distinct patterns by region. Younger cohorts in California who are native-born are advancing to levels above the population as a whole and are clearly higher than those for the foreign-born. Foreign-born cohorts are moving up, but much more slowly than the native-born of similar ages. Finally, it is clear that older age groups, especially 50-59, have trouble maintaining middle class status.

The story is one in which there are positive and not so positive interpretations. The penetration of the youngest cohort as it ages is remarkable, but the overall slow increase in the Hispanic foreign-born portends greater difficulty in the future. The substantial declines in the proportion of middle class households in the older age native-born cohorts is a question about the ability of these groups to maintain their middle class lifestyle. At the same time, the outcomes in comparison with the native-born emphasize the convergence between ethnic native-born and the native-born as a whole. The very large differences across regions is a reminder that outcomes vary geographically and that immigrant outcomes must be seen in their geographic and ethnic context.

Generational Changes

Additional insight into the paths of immigrant groups is added when we examine generational changes — of how the children of immigrants as they in turn become heads of households are doing over time. In this analysis I compare the successes of the children of the foreign-born, and the children of native-born households whose parents were immigrants. In this way we can contrast the first, second and third generations. I examine three immigrant categories, both parents native-born, one parent native-born-one foreign-born and two parents foreign-born. I examine these groups for two age cohorts, 30-39 and 40-49. For the six categories I calculate the proportion who were middle class based on the aggregated 1996-1999 Current Population Survey.

The results are revealing and important, consistent with our expectations about moving up and becoming assimilated economically. Households with two foreign-born parents are less likely to have joined the middle class than are households with one native-born parent, but there is not a great deal of difference between one and two native-born parents (Table 8). The 40-49 age cohort households have higher proportions with middle class status, again as expected. Those households with one foreign-born parent do not have quite the same proportional representation in the middle class as households with two native-born parents, though both groups with at least one native-born parent are almost a third more likely to be members of the middle class, than are households with two foreign-born parents. Households with two native-born parents are closer to the average as a whole in their proportional representation in the middle class.


Table: Changes in the Relative Proportion of Second and Third Generation Households Who Are Middle Class


Puerto Rican households are less likely to be in the middle class though the proportion does increase with age. Having two native-born parents does not increase the likelihood of making it to the middle class. The patterns for Cubans are reversed. The younger cohorts, especially those with foreign-born parents are more likely to be members of the middle class and at a rate which is higher than that for the U.S. population as a whole (Table 8). The data is not sufficiently rich to examine these preliminary results in more detail, but the findings here further reiterate the considerable variation within Hispanic groups and the finding that while some households are doing well, there is much more progress to be made.

What do the generational results add to our earlier findings? They emphasize the rapidity with which all groups move into the middle class with aging. They show that all groups have difficulty maintaining their middle class status with aging, but that such maintenance seems to be more difficult for Hispanic households than households in general. The results also re-emphasize the likely slow upward trajectories of the foreign-born groups, even those who have been here since 1980.

Progress and Inequality: Observations and Conclusions

The findings in this report are cause for both celebration and caution. Numerically, Hispanic middle class households are a new force in the demography and economy of the United States.

The celebration is in the clear gains in upward mobility for a wide range of Hispanic households. Those gains are greatest in selected regions. The gains are considerable in Texas and modest or non-existent in the New York-New Jersey region. At the same time, there appears to be a slowing in the rate at which younger cohorts are able to become members of the middle class. While there is considerable upward mobility, it is not as great for some younger cohorts, or in New York-New Jersey. The Hispanic groups in New York- New Jersey are quite unlikely to move upward in the same way as Hispanics in Texas and Florida.

It is useful to review the research in the context of income inequality which was raised at the beginning of the study. A useful measure of inequality is the ratio of the lowest income quartile to the highest income quartile, the 75/25 ratio, and changes in that ratio over time. Using that ratio, Reed (1999) shows that income inequality has been increasing in the United States and even more dramatically in California since about 1980. In 1969, in California, the upper middle class (the 75th percentile) had about 2.3 times more income than the lower middle class (the 25th percentile) and this ratio increased to nearly 3.3 times in 1998 (Figure 13). Reed attributes the increase in income inequality to the fact that there are increasing wage differentials between skilled and less-skilled workers. In turn the increase in wage differentials leads to an increasing bifurcation in incomes. In California at least, those with more education are earning higher incomes and increasing the differential between those with more education and those with less than a high school diploma.


Graph: Inequality in US and California Incomes, Defined as the Ratio of the 75th to the 25th Percentile


The increase in inequality in California and the distributions of household income suggest that there is a potential if not existing bifurcation in the income distribution. If there is both upward mobility for some and stagnation or decline for others, the pattern of inequality may increase over time. Are there in fact trajectories of promise and trajectories of despair for Hispanic households?

Computing the 75th/25th income ratio for Hispanic households in the United States and by states suggests that Hispanic households may be following the paths already in place for the population as a whole (Table 9). Inequality ratios have increased for Hispanic households for the United States as a whole and in three of the four regions in the analysis. They declined very slightly in Texas for all Hispanic households but increased for native-born households. Florida also had a small decrease in the inequality ratio for the native-born population. An additional significant finding is that the inequality ratios are higher for Hispanic households in New York than they are for the total population. They are also higher in Florida. These inequality ratios are evidence of a bifurcating Hispanic population, one that is following the same paths already carved out by the population as a whole. The long-term implications suggest that the paths of success may well be paralleled by paths of limited opportunities.


Table: Measures of Income Inequality for Households, 1980-1999


The paths for the future will be a function, in large part, of the current and continuing flows. If large numbers of less-skilled and less-educated Hispanics and Hispanic households arrive in the next decade, and if it is difficult for them to follow the optimistic paths we have examined in this study, there will be an increase in inequality. The rising inequality not just for the population as a whole, but for Hispanic households too, hints at the bifurcation which is already a concern of the society at large. If the divide within the ethnic community also widens we may well be following the divergent paths of progress and stagnation. Without considerably greater commitments to basic education and to innovative education programs for both younger and older immigrant households it is possible that the immigrant community, like the native-born community, may follow a path to two nations, unequal and increasingly separated.


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The funds for this study were provided by the Center for Immigration Studies. Additional funding was provided by the Research Committee of the Academic Senate at UCLA. Jeff Garfinkle and Youqin Huang provided essential research assistance on the project. James Allen kindly read the manuscript and suggested some important revisions.

About the Author

William Clark is Professor of Geography at UCLA. He published The California Cauldron: Immigration and the Fortunes of Local Communities (Guilford) in 1998 and is working on a book on the immigrant middle class.