The 2010 U.S. Census counted 50.5 million Latinos. We account for 16.3 percent of the residents of the country—a percentage that is expected to grow given that Latinos represent more than 23 percent of the population among children ages 17 and under.
Given this, it is undeniable that Latinos will represent a large share of the electorate in the coming decades. Scholars, commentators and politicians have repeatedly stated the importance that Hispanic voters will have in deciding future elections. However, Latinos will not become a true political force until we address a critical challenge: our low level of political engagement.
Historically, Latinos have been a politically disengaged group. We have had less than average participation in elections, and hardly ever become involved in policy debates, advocacy groups or town meetings. A poll by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2010 showed that only 51 percent of Hispanic-registered voters were certain that they would vote in that year’s election (in contrast to 70 percent of all voters.) Other statistics confirmed this tendency: only 26 percent have attended a public meeting or demonstration, 22 percent have contacted an elected official and 7 percent have worked for a candidate. Even when a critical issue like the Dream Act is at stake, Latino involvement waned relatively fast.
A key factor for the lack of political participation of Latinos is our low level of civic and economic education. Many Latinos don’t know concepts or understand processes that are crucial for an effective engagement of politics in America. Research has showed that there are significant differences between Hispanics and the general population regarding their knowledge of civic concepts, democratic institutions and political communications.
According to the Council of Economic Education, Hispanics are less likely than other ethnic groups to show an understanding of economic concepts. How many of us know about the process that decides the nation’s budget, the way a bill becomes a law, the predicament with the national debt, the opportunities to influence public policy with our local representative, why some people pay more taxes than others, the rights of citizens and non-citizens, or how unemployment is calculated?
The United States has the responsibility to hear the voices of every single resident of the country and engage them in the political process. But Latinos have the responsibility of becoming educated in civic and economic subjects in order to express their opinions in the democratic dialogue and make informed decisions when casting a vote, supporting a candidate or debating a policy. We must place special emphasis in our children who will be deciding the long-term path of the country. Our future as a political force depends in great deal on prioritizing civic and economic education at school and home.
So although Latinos may be 50 million strong now, the real challenge is continued education to ensure that our 50 million voices are heard.
*Adrian Franco is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a member of the Understanding Fiscal Responsibility Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a consultant specialized in financial access and financial education.