Arkansas’ melting pot will have more salsa


There’s a lot of information in the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s newly released report, “A Profile of Immigrants in Arkansas,” but five bars – one orange-ish, four gray – on one chart sum up the story.

The orange-ish bar shows the number of U.S.-born Latino children in Arkansas increasing by 37,000 from 2000 to 2010.

The gray bars show what’s happening in the white population. Three bars display increases – by 43,000 for those ages 46 to 55, by 92,000 among those ages 56 to 65, and by 39,000 among those 66 and older. The fourth shows a decrease of more than 40,000 among whites ages 36 to 45.

Basically, white Arkansans are getting older, and there are more children of Hispanic heritage here now. In fact, 10 percent of Arkansas students are Hispanic.

That doesn’t mean we’ll all soon be speaking Spanish. The state’s 133,000 immigrants make up only five percent of the population, far less than the national average of 13 percent, and only two-thirds of Arkansas immigrants are Latino.

However, it’s safe to assume that Arkansas’ melting pot will be mixed with more salsa regardless of what happens in the political arena. The state has the nation’s fourth fastest-growing immigrant population, the white population is disproportionately older, and the Hispanic population is made up of a lot of young people. As reported recently in this space, the median age of white, non-Hispanic women in Arkansas is 42, so half are finished bearing children. For Hispanic women, the median age is 22, which means they’re just getting started.

This increase in the Hispanic population is not a bad thing at all, though it should be done in an orderly way and under the rule of law. America is an immigrant nation that thrives on the fresh perspectives brought by ambitious newcomers.

But this change does bring challenges, especially in education. According to the report, the state spent about $4.3 billion educating all children in 2009-10, with an estimated $460 million of that spent on children of immigrants. Because of the influx of children of immigrants, seven percent of all Arkansas students are considered to have “limited English proficiency.” Schools are expected to make them proficient on top of all else they must do.

Also, according to the report, the state spent $555 million on services for immigrants and their children in 2010. It collected $524 million in taxes from them and the economic activity they generated – a $31 million deficit. The report estimates the total economic impact of immigrants to have been $4.3 billion that year, so, supposedly, they bring far more to the economy than they take out from the government.

Take those figures for what they are: the result of several researchers crunching a lot of numbers to try to ascertain the unknowable. It’s probably true that the state spends more money providing services to immigrants than it gets back in taxes from them – but then, that’s the case with all of us, which is why the country has a $16 trillion national debt.

In addition to Latinos and others, Arkansas has the nation’s second highest Marshallese population after Hawaii. Most live in Springdale and are not technically immigrants. The United States tested atomic bombs in the Marshall Islands during World War II, and because it’s not that safe to live there anymore, the federal government pretty much lets them come and go as they please. Since the Marshall Islands are really poor, a lot of them are coming and not that many are going.

More numbers? While 42 percent of all immigrants are here illegally, 82 percent of the children of immigrants are American citizens because they were born here.

Finally, there’s this: Hispanic men are the ethnic group most likely to be employed, which is not surprising, and Hispanics have a longer life expectancy than other groups. Hispanics, after all, are poorer than white native-born Arkansans and have less access to health care, two factors usually associated with shorter life spans.

So Hispanics work, and they live longer. Maybe the two are related.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com.