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Hispanic Population In 2 Connecticut Counties Nears Milestone


August 07, 2008

Hispanics are on pace to outnumber black people in Hartford and New Haven counties for the first time in history, according to new population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Data released today estimate that 117,533 Hispanics lived in Hartford County on July 1, 2007, about 1,330 fewer than the total number of black people in the area. But although the black population rose 1 percent from 2006, Hispanics increased 2.5 percent and have been growing steadily during the past decade.

If the trend continued into 2008, Hispanics now represent the largest ethnic group in Hartford County. The picture is similar in New Haven County, where black people last year outnumbered an expanding Hispanic population by only 1,187 residents.

The increase in Hispanics could prove to be a boost for the state's workforce, said Edward Deak, an economics professor at Fairfield University.

"We're a very slow labor-growth state, and if you were to take out the increase of the Hispanic population, I would suspect you would see no growth or a small decline in the number of workers in Connecticut," he said.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in Connecticut and across the country, so the latest data were little surprise to economists and population experts in the state. About one in seven people in the United States are Hispanic, and in Hartford, Hispanic residents have outnumbered black people for years. The difference now is that the Hispanic population in surrounding towns in Hartford County is rising.

Ron Van Winkle, an economist in West Hartford, where he is the interim town manager, attributed the growing number of Hispanics to "new Americans."

Immigrants "coming here for the same reason my [ancestors] came here, because of the opportunities," Van Winkle said. More than 60 languages are spoken in West Hartford public schools, with Spanish being the predominant foreign language, and more than 17 percent of K-12 students live in homes where English is not primarily spoken.

Another factor is newborns, said Orlando Rodriguez, manager of the Connecticut State Data Center at the University of Connecticut, which analyzes population trends. The census data showed that children under 5 are the largest age group for Hispanics in Connecticut and that the number of Hispanic babies has been increasing sharply over the years.

Rodriguez pointed to the fertility rate. For Hispanics, the average is about 2.4 children per mother, much higher than the rate of 2.05 children for black people, Rodriguez said. A fertility rate of 2.1 is necessary to maintain a stable population.

Overall, the state population was estimated at 3,502,309 in 2007, a minuscule growth of 6,556 residents from the previous year, according to the census data. But the white population dropped a fraction during that time, from 2,961,014 to 2,958,671 partly because of people moving out of the state, Rodriguez said.

There is some overlap between the racial and ethnic groups. Hispanic ethnicity is considered independent of race in census data, so people who identify themselves as black could also identify as Hispanic. The census estimates that in Hartford County, 12,830 people were both black and Hispanic in 2007 and that there were 126,968 people who were black or a combination of black and some other race.

Although the increase in Hispanic residents expands the workforce, Deak, the Fairfield economist, added, "On the other hand, you want to know what the skill level is of the new population and you want to know the experience level. Of course, the data doesn't tell you that."

Van Winkle said an influx of newcomers can initially strain town services, but he contended that over the long term it will "benefit the economy dramatically."

"Our unemployment rate is low" about 5.4 percent "even in this recession," Van Winkle said. "The first generation comes and struggles with language, struggles with work, generally doesn't end up with the highest-paying jobs. But the second generation, which is what we're also beginning to see here," is likely to attend local schools and start to assimilate.

Children in Connecticut communities that put a premium on education might then pursue professional careers, Van Winkle said. "Our West Hartford kids are going to colleges, hoping to become engineers. ... There is opportunity here."

In New London County, where the number of Hispanics rose to 16,916 in 2007 and nearly matched the black population, the New London school district has experienced a striking shift in its demographics in a matter of several years. In the 2000-01 school year, 35 percent of the district's students were Hispanic and 37 percent were black. This past academic year, nearly half of the students were identified as Hispanic and one-third were black. White students made up 17 percent of district enrollment.

When Superintendent of Schools Christopher Clouet was hired five years ago, one reason was because he speaks fluent Spanish and has traveled to most countries in Latin America. Families in New London include Peruvians, Guatemalans and Ecuadoreans, some finding jobs in the gaming industry. Many have a low income.

"It is a challenge in the sense that many of the recent arrivals don't speak English as a first language," said Clouet, who acknowledged that district test scores have been low. "The kids are as bright as anyone else. It takes a little bit more time to get accustomed to the language [and] academic testing."

The Hispanic population growth may also affect local politics in Connecticut, if Hartford is any indication.

"The numbers of Hispanics keep growing, day by day," said state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, a Democrat from Hartford's Frog Hollow and Parkville neighborhoods. "Every district is changing here. I represent the 3rd District. At least 72 percent is Latino."

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez believes the impact of new Hispanics is gradual.

"New arrivals take a little time to get engaged in the political process because the assimilation issues are a lot different," Perez said. But as generations shift, so does an interest in the political structure, and Perez said he has noticed more Hispanics seeking to be part of town committees. And not just in Hartford, but also in Manchester, East Hartford and Wethersfield.

"The central city is the port of entry for folks," Perez said. "As people are stable in a community and do well, they go to the outlying towns in the region."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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