Henry Cisneros: Why We Must Invest in Our Latinos

America has long been the envy of the rest of the world, and for good reason. Over the past century, the United States has harnessed its economic, scientific, cultural and educational resources to produce remarkable achievements in every field of human endeavor. But with nations like China and India emerging as major powers, many argue that U.S. dominance will soon be eclipsed, and what is known as the American Century will soon be over. Our fate is far from sealed, though. Whether America surmounts its challenges or slides to the middle of the pack will likely depend on its fastest-growing segment: the Latino community.

If demographics is destiny, consider this: there are roughly eight Latino births for every death, whereas white births and deaths are nearly even. While more-homogenous developed countries like Japan, Italy, France and Germany are aging rapidly, this Latino baby boom could be a major engine of growth for the United States. Young Latinos could bolster our workforce, increase the size of our markets, support Social Security and revitalize our communities. According to the most recent Census Bureau projections, about 60 percent of total U.S. growth will come from the Latino population — that's almost 100 million additional people. One in four Americans will be Latino. This holds true even if the border fence that Congress and the Bush administration authorized proves impenetrable—which is highly unlikely.

The law of large numbers guarantees that Latinos will move the national averages in almost every measurable area of American life. The question is how. If current trends continue, Latino growthcould actually speed our national decline. Need a cautionary tale? In California, the underperformance of Latino students has pushed the state to the bottom of the heap—45th among 50 states in educational attainment. On the other hand, if we investin services that lift Latinos into the middle class, they could become the dynamic heart of a continuing American success story.

Even during the 1950s, when U.S. industry was a powerhouse, progressive policies were what spurred the expansion of the middle class—through the GI Bill, commitment to homeownership and the passage of the minimum wage. Those same initiatives created a more just society, which in turn helped foster the civil-rights movement, the women's movement and the environmental movement. America's future vibrancy depends on renewing those commitments for Latinos.

There's much work to be done. Adult Latinos often wait years to be admitted to English classes. Services in America's cities—where the bulk of Latinos live, work and spend their money—have deteriorated over the past eight years. Local governments will be even more hamstrung by the current economic crisis. The new administration will need to focus on chipping away at these roadblocks to the middle class.

Of course, Latinos must also take advantage of the opportunities that do exist, and invest in American society. Immigrants must do whatever they can to master English. They must prepare themselves to succeed in the workplace, and to guide their children through the school system. They must save to buy their own homes, and work to provide their families with a health plan, retirement plan and savings account. They should participate enthusiastically in civic, community and religious activities. And they should strive for full citizenship.

It's important to remember we can do all this without losing our heritage. We can learn English without forgetting Spanish, adopt American social practices in the workplace without having to denigrate our native traditions, and follow American laws without ignoring our obligations to family and community. In fact, being bilingual and bicultural are competitive advantages that will only be more important in the future.

America's Latinos on the whole are a community of strivers. We understand that striving is at the core of American culture. And we know that the American Dream, while far from foolproof, represents the right to strive with the best chance of reward. This is the basis for a hopeful America whose best days are still ahead. If Latinos succeed, so will America.