Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book Out of the Barrio (Basic Books).

Hispanic leaders often seem to wear disadvantage as a badge of honor, as if groups were competing with one another for the title “most disadvantaged.” But the truth is that most Hispanic Americans are doing very well. With one notable exception, Hispanic groups are following the upwardly mobile path of previous immigrant groups. Hispanics—particularly those born here—are very much like other Americans: They work hard, support their own families, bear their children in wedlock, have more education and higher incomes than their parents, and own their own homes.

The most widely cited statistics mask this progress, because they combine data for recent immigrants with those for U.S.-born Hispanics. Recent immigrants from South and Central America, arriving with poor English and little education, have a difficult time reaching the middle class. But like other second-generation Americans, their children appear to be moving rapidly into the mainstream.

Cuban immigrants have achieved social and economic parity with other Americans in one generation. Mexican-Americans are moving steadily into the middle class. Even Mexican immigrants and those from other Latin American countries appear to be largely self-sufficient. Two-thirds of such immigrants live above the poverty line, enjoying a standard of living far above that attainable in their native countries.

Hispanics certainly are in no danger of becoming part of a permanent underclass. Stable families are probably the most important factor preventing the temporarily poor from descending into that abyss: About 73 percent of all Mexican-origin families and 77 percent of all Cuban families consist of married couples—much better figures than those for blacks and comparable with those for non-Hispanics (80 percent). Hispanic men are actually more likely to be in the labor force—that is, working or looking for work—than non-Hispanic whites. After adjusting for schooling, experience, hours worked, and geographical region, the earnings of Hispanic men are only a little lower than those of non-Hispanic white men. (Mexican-American men are usually described as having the lowest earnings among Hispanic groups. Yet those who were born in the U.S. earn about 94 percent of what similarly situated non-Hispanic white men earn.) Steadily improving Hispanic educational achievement suggests that gap will continue to narrow.

All the evidence suggests that if Hispanics choose to join the mainstream of American society, as most are doing, they will do as well as most previous immigrant groups and just as quickly. As their economic status improves, most will opt to move out of ethnic enclaves. Many will intermarry. Already half of all Mexican-Americans in California choose non-Hispanic spouses, just as most Irish, Italian, German, French, and even WASP Americans choose a mate—or a neighborhood, or a job, or a political party—for reasons other than ethnic origin.

To all this good news, however, there is one tragic and curious exception: the Puerto Ricans, particularly those living in New York. Puerto Ricans are the poorest of all Hispanic groups, faring worse than blacks by some measures. The proportion of men in the labor force, for example, is lower among Puerto Ricans than any other group, including blacks. Nearly one-third of Puerto Rican families live below the poverty line. Thirty-nine percent of Puerto Rican families are headed by single women; 53 percent of Puerto Rican children are born out of wedlock. Only 57 percent of Puerto Rican families consist of married couples. Puerto Ricans have the highest welfare participation rate of any group in New York, with 60 percent of families receiving some form of public assistance as of 1986.

By a number of standards, this does not make sense. Puerto Ricans are among the best educated Hispanics, with a median of 12 years of schooling, significantly more than Mexicans and nearly as much as Cubans. A relatively high proportion are second- or third-generation mainlanders; people of Mexican origin are far more likely to be immigrants, although as a group they are doing much better than Puerto Ricans.

Moreover, Puerto Rican exceptionalism seems to be largely a New York phenomenon. Puerto Ricans in Florida, Texas, and California are doing much better than their New York counterparts. Puerto Ricans in these states have higher labor force participation, occupational status, and per capita income than Mexicans.

The national figures for Puerto Ricans are low, then, primarily because of New York, home to nearly half of the 2.2 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland. Why are Puerto Ricans in New York faring so badly?

The conventional view is that Puerto Ricans confronted a far more hostile environment than earlier immigrants, stocked with more bigots and fewer jobs. Clara Rodriguez, author of Puerto Ricans: Born In the U.S.A., speaks for many analysts when she explains the poverty of Puerto Rican migrants this way:

The discrimination and racism they met came as a double shock. This was especially difficult for a people unfamiliar with the sharp-edged discrimination of the United States—discrimination that actually limited life chances. What Puerto Ricans found in the labor market was different from what earlier European immigrant groups had found.

Bigotry might be expected to be a national phenomenon, which makes the particular problems of Puerto Ricans in New York more difficult to explain. But again there is a conventional answer, which has come to be known as the “mismatch thesis” of minority unemployment. That thesis is that the great cities of the North, and New York in particular, lost hundreds of thousands of unskilled manufacturing jobs in the Fifties and Sixties, just a few decades after huge numbers of minority workers migrated to those cities in pursuit of such jobs. As jobs vanished, these would-be workers became the core of the underclass.

This argument is not without merit. Although the total number of jobs in New York City remained stable during the 1950s and 1960s, the city did lose almost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs during that time. And although industrial workers from many parts of the Northeast did migrate to the Sunbelt or the West in pursuit of work, most of New York’s Puerto Ricans stayed, and huge numbers ended up on welfare. By 1960, half the city’s Puerto Rican families were receiving some form of public assistance.

The trouble with this explanation is that it begs the question of why Puerto Ricans have fared so badly compared with other Hispanics. Critics such as Rodriguez understate the prejudice faced by earlier immigrants, who thrived in spite of it; overstate the effect of discrimination against Puerto Ricans; and do not even engage the question of why Anglos would dislike Puerto Ricans more than other Hispanics. Neither racism nor the “mismatch thesis” can explain why Puerto Ricans, alone among Hispanics, appear in danger of developing a permanent underclass.

Take, for example, another large Hispanic group in New York: the Dominicans. About half a million Dominicans have arrived in the United States since 1965, and they now make up an estimated 40 percent of New York’s Hispanic population. Dominicans share many characteristics of Puerto Ricans. Like Puerto Ricans, Dominicans have a mixed racial background. Like Puerto Ricans, Dominicans face a job market that places a premium on technical skills and offers few opportunities in manufacturing. Yet Dominican immigrants have been much better at avoiding dependency. In 1980 only 30 percent of all adult Dominicans had completed high school. Yet in 1980, the labor force participation rate of Dominican males was 82.5 percent, compared with 69 percent for Puerto Rican males. The average income of Dominicans is about 30 percent higher than that of Puerto Ricans, and 70 percent of all Hispanic small-business owners in New York are Dominicans.

Neither racism nor the changing labor market explains why Dominicans have been successful where Puerto Ricans have failed. A more plausible explanation is that the temptations of the welfare system—which are particularly lavish in New York —have interacted with certain peculiarities of Puerto Rican history and culture to make New York’s Puerto Ricans more likely to be ensnared into underclass life. The Puerto Rican family structure is in shambles, and New York’s Puerto Ricans seem to have developed a low resistance to long-term welfare dependency. These two factors, each alone enough to trap many of the poor in their poverty, seem to be working together to devastate the Puerto Rican community.

Why are Puerto Ricans more likely to fall into dependency? Primarily because they are U.S. citizens. Legal resident aliens from any country are eligible for some welfare benefits, with modest restrictions. However, the path to the welfare office Is much less smooth and straight for most immigrants than for Puerto Ricans. For one thing, foreigners cannot legally come to this country unless they show that they can support themselves. Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, have a legal right to be here regardless of means of support.

Even more importantly, most new immigrants simply do not know very much about the welfare system. Some private social service professionals who specialize in helping refugees say privately that they deliberately keep their charges from finding out that there is a government welfare system because they have learned that welfare can sap the enormous energy required to make a decent life in a new culture.

Puerto Ricans do not have the benefit of such ignorance. Many Puerto Ricans, unlike other Latinos, come to this country already well versed in the ways of the welfare state. About 70 percent of all persons living in Puerto Rico receive some form of government assistance; more than 50 percent qualify for food stamps.

As L. H. Gann and Peter Duignan observe in their book The Hispanics in the United States, Puerto Ricans were “the first immigrant group who unwittingly moved into what became ... a welfare economy with a powerful and intrusive bureaucracy, a high level of public expenditure, and a strong commitment to social planning.”

New York has long had one of the most generous welfare systems in the country. Not only does New York pay a higher basic AFDC grant than most states (including all other states with large Puerto Rican populations), but it also provides probably the most generous Medicaid package of any state. New York City has by far the largest, and also one of the best, public housing programs of any major U.S. city.

Does this help explain why, as manufacturing jobs fled the city, many of the city’s Puerto Rican citizens were ensnared by welfare? Surely it is part of the answer.

In 1977 Hispanics accounted for 42 percent of all recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in New York City. By 1986 they constituted 54 percent of the AFDC caseload, even though Hispanics make up only about one-quarter of the city’s population. Puerto Rican women alone make up nearly 40 percent of female New York AFDC recipients, even though Puerto Ricans are only about 12 percent of the city’s population. Welfare dependency has risen so steeply that the State Department of Social Services recently conducted its own survey of public assistance and food stamp recipients to better understand the nature of Hispanic welfare dependency.

The result of the survey, published in 1990, confirms a disturbing pattern of long-term dependency among New York’s Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rican recipients averaged nearly eight years on public assistance, longer than any other group. Nearly one-third of all Puerto Rican recipients have been on welfare IP
continuously for more than ten years.

The majority of the Puerto Rican recipients are women who have never married. Less than 60 percent of Puerto Rican recipients have ever held a job, and less than 20 percent have worked within the last three years. Perhaps most disturbingly, 41 percent of Puerto Rican women on welfare are second-generation welfare mothers: Either their father or mother had received public assistance as well.

The survey also shed some light on the cause of this pattern of dependency. Although Puerto Rican welfare recipients were, in general, poorly educated (nearly one-third had completed less than nine years of schooling), poor job skills alone do not explain why so few Puerto Rican women worked. Puerto Ricans differed most from other welfare recipients in their attitudes toward work and family.

Puerto Rican women display a remarkable and admirable attachment to traditional family values. Puerto Rican women have the lowest labor force participation of any American group—only 41 percent, a figure that has varied little over three decades despite rising labor force participation by other women during this period. Nearly 60 percent of the Puerto Rican women responding to the Department of Social Services survey cited family reasons for their failure to work. Fifty-four percent of Puerto Rican women said they would be afraid to leave their children in day care in order to take a job, compared with 18 percent of black women. Nearly half said they believed mothers of school-age children should not work. Forty-one percent of Puerto Ricans, but only 14 percent of black recipients, said welfare provided better for their families than they could.

It is thus precisely a commitment to family values that causes so many Puerto Rican women, faced with the prospect of raising their children without a husband, to stay on welfare, and to accustom themselves and their children to a life of dependency, a culture of poverty. Tragically, just as citizenship seems to have become a burden for many Puerto Ricans by increasing the temptations of welfare, the welfare system seems to have turned some of the great virtues of the Puerto Rican people against them.

The question remains, Why are so many Puerto Rican women raising children without husbands? Whether the welfare system itself breaks up families or discourages them from forming is a contentious issue. But there seems little doubt that under certain conditions welfare benefits can encourage family breakup by making it easier for a woman to contemplate raising children alone or for a man to convince himself he is not needed.

It is easy to see how the generosity of New York’s welfare system and certain aspects of Puerto Rican family culture could combine for maximum destructive effect. The Department of Social Services survey portrays New York’s Puerto Ricans as living in a rather traditional family culture, with firm sex roles. But to this traditionalism there is one crucial exception: Puerto Rican women are much less likely to marry than other Hispanics. Only 57 percent of Puerto Rican families consist of married couples, compared with 80 percent of non-Hispanics and 73 percent of Mexican-Americans.

Puerto Ricans’ failure to marry has deep roots in island culture. As late as 1950, one-quarter of all unions in Puerto Rico were consensual or common-law. According to Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, author of Puerto Rican Americans, the children born to such unions were recognized as “natural” children, and their parents as stable, though not legally married, couples. In the traditional Puerto Rican family, a man who lived in the home provided for his children, whether or not he married the mother. He might also bring into the home children from another union that had dissolved. This practice continued in New York. As Fitzpatrick notes:

This is not an uncommon phenomenon among Puerto Rican families. New Yorkers have complained about the difficulty of understanding the differing names of children in some Puerto Rican households.... If a visitor asks a boy if the girl with him is his sister, he may respond, “Yes, on my father’s side,” or, “Yes, on my mother’s side.”

As Puerto Ricans adapted to living conditions in New York, however, many Puerto Rican fathers began to abandon responsibility for their children to the state. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the informality of Puerto Rican family bonds, transplanted to a new and less supportive culture, combined with the easy availability of welfare, makes it easier for men to let go of their responsibilities.

Puerto Rican men have unusually low labor-participation rates. Almost one-third of Puerto Rican males over age 16 are neither working nor looking for work. Some are in school, but a great many more are dependent on family members or the state, or are in institutions. In New York more Hispanic men in their twenties are in criminal custody than are enrolled in college.

Again, the relationship between marriage and work effort is a hotly disputed topic among social scientists, but there is good reason to believe that the collapse of the Puerto Rican family here is a major factor in Puerto Rican men’s low work effort. Some social theorists argue, for instance, that the poor economic prospects of Puerto Rican men make them less attractive mates, lowering Puerto Rican women’s willingness to marry. But the prospects of Puerto Rican men who do work are not poor: They appear to fare at least as well as other Hispanics. While the median family earnings of Puerto Ricans are the lowest of any Hispanic groups, individual earnings of both male and female Puerto Ricans who work are actually higher than those of any Hispanic subgroup except Cubans. In 1989, Puerto Rican men had median earnings that were 83 percent of those of non-Hispanics, even without adjusting for education and other differences. Nearly one-third of the Puerto Rican men who work are employed in managerial, professional, technical, sales, or administrative support jobs.

It is likely, then, that the causality runs the other way: Low marriage rates depress Puerto Rican men’s work effort. As June O’Neill and other economists have demonstrated, married men’s earnings are substantially higher than those of unmarried men, regardless of race. And there is good reason to believe that the “marriage effect” on male earnings would be particularly strong among Puerto Ricans, who believe the husband should be the primary or sole breadwinner. As one study of Puerto Rican families revealed, both spouses believe that marital fulfillment requires the husband to be a good provider.

The best way to observe the relationship between marriage and poverty in the Puerto Rican community is to look at how Puerto Ricans in intact families fare. The evidence indicates they do extremely well. A small study of intact Puerto Rican families by Fordham University in the mid-Seventies found the adult children of such families performing well above the norm on every indicator. This was true even though their parents were similar to other Puerto Rican migrants in every way, except one: They got married, and they stayed married.

Like most Puerto Ricans migrants, the parents in the Fordham study were poorly educated, and also had difficulty with English. Even after living three decades in the United States, 20 percent were unable to write English and 10 percent were unable to read it. And, of course, married Puerto Ricans faced the same economic and social conditions as other Puerto Ricans who migrated in the Forties and Fifties, including the loss of manufacturing jobs so often blamed for Puerto Rican poverty.

Yet the parents’ difficulties proved no barrier to their children’s success. Children from intact Puerto Rican families had a median education of 12.4 years, compared with only 10.3 years for all young Puerto Ricans in 1975. They were almost two-and-a-half times as likely as the average Puerto Rican to get a college degree. Almost 40 percent worked as professionals or managers, compared with only 15 percent of all Puerto Ricans.

The Fordham study confirms that stable marriages confer considerable advantages to children. Despite economic, educational, and language barriers, married Puerto Rican parents provided a stable, nurturing environment for their children, who made dramatic social and economic progress compared with other Puerto Ricans. For Puerto Ricans as for everyone else, the traditional family is the cornerstone of social and economic progress: Its collapse must be the main concern of those who would see them join other Hispanics on the march to the middle class and the mainstream of American society.

Many Puerto Ricans are making it in the United States. There is a thriving middle class of well-educated professionals, managers, and white-collar workers, whose individual earnings are among the highest of all Hispanic groups and most of whom live in stable families. These Puerto Ricans, like other ethnic groups, have moved up the economic ladder and into the mainstream within one or two generations of their arrival in the United States.

Still, the prognosis for Puerto Ricans as a group is discouraging. Each year brings evidence that more Puerto Ricans are slipping further into dependency, and more Puerto Rican families are becoming dysfunctional. The illegitimacy rate for Puerto Rican babies inches up every year, and is now more than 50 percent. In 1960, 85 percent of all Puerto Rican males worked; three decades later, only 69 percent were in the work force. Almost half of all Puerto Rican welfare recipients have never held a job. Puerto Ricans are being left behind as other Hispanics surge forward.

The crisis facing the Puerto Rican community is not simply one of government neglect. Puerto Ricans have been smothered by entitlements. The illegal Mexican alien working in an East L.A. sweatshop has a better chance of improving his and his children’s standard of living than the Puerto Rican born in New York City who ends up on welfare. Citizenship, which should have enhanced Puerto Rican achievement, may actually have hindered it, by conferring entitlements without obligations.

There is nothing inevitable about Puerto Rican failure. The problem is not an intractable racism, but rather Puerto Ricans’ failure to marry and form stable families. So long as many Puerto Rican men remain alienated from the work force, living by crime or charity, and fathering children they do not support, the prospects of Puerto Ricans in the United States will be dim. So long as so many Puerto Rican women allow the men who father their babies to avoid the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood, they deny their children the promise of a better life, the patrimony of generations of immigrant children.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next