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8.4: Social Institutions

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    Immigration Policy and Status

    Mexican Americans, especially those who are undocumented, are at the center of a national debate about immigration. Myers (2007) observes that no other people of color (except the Chinese) has immigrated to the United States in such an environment of illegality. He notes that in some years, three times as many Mexican immigrants may have entered the United States illegally as those who arrived legally. It should be noted that this is due to enormous disparity of economic opportunity on two sides of an open border, not because of any inherent inclination to break laws. In his report, “Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States,” Jacob Vigdor (2008) states that Mexican immigrants experience relatively low rates of economic and civil assimilation. He further suggests that “the slow rates of economic and civic assimilation set Mexicans apart from other immigrants, and may reflect the fact that the large numbers of Mexican immigrants residing in the United States illegally have few opportunities to advance themselves along these dimensions.”

    By contrast, Cuban Americans are often seen as a model people of color within the larger Hispanic group. Many Cubans had higher socioeconomic status when they arrived in this country, and their anti-Communist agenda has made them welcome refugees to this country. In south Florida, especially, Cuban Americans are active in local politics and professional life. As with Asian Americans, however, being a model minority can mask the issue of powerlessness that these people of colors face in U.S. society.

    Despite the rhetoric of anti-immigrant politicians and commentators, Light, He, & Robey (2020) did not find empirical evidence that undocumented criminality has increased in recent years. Using comprehensive arrest data in Texas between 2012 and 2018, they found that "undocumented immigrants have substantially lower crime rates than native-born citizens and legal immigrants across a range of felony offenses."

    Economy and Household Income

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) shows that the disparity between the real median household income (adjusted to 2016 dollars) of Latinx families and white families has actually increased since 1970. In 1970, the disparity was about $12,000 and by 2016 the disparity had increased to over $17,000. Human Capital theorists would attribute this income disparity to lower average levels of educational attainment and job skills that translates into lower occupational status and income. Beyond human capital, the differences in income may also be explained by immigrant background, concentration in certain low-paying industries, and also gender and racial discrimination. More recently, Krogstad (2020) found that Latinx families are among the most impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic in terms of reductions in pay and also job losses.

    Real median household income by race and Hispanic origin. The chart shows that the disparity between the real median household income (adjusted to 2016 dollars) of Latinx families and white families has actually increased since 1970.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Real median household income by race and Hispanic origin: 1967 to 2016. (CC PDM 1.0; via U.S. Census Bureau)


    According the Pew Center (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)), approximately 60% of the entire adult Latinx population attained a high school degree or less, significantly higher than the rate of the American population at 40%. The percentage of those who earned a two-year degree or some college was 4 percentage points lower and the 4-year college degree attainment rate was half (16%) of the rate of the entire American population. However, some of the educational attainment gaps are reduced or disappear when comparing only the U.S. born Latinx adult population to the entire American adult population. The high school or less gap is reduced to 8 percentage point and the 4-year college degree attainment gap is reduced to 12 percentage points. The U.S. born Latinx adult population actually has a higher percentage of people who have attained a 2-year degree or some college. Demographers and social scientists such as Dowell Myers and David Hayes-Bautista have commented on the social gap between the aging white baby boomer population in states like California and the growing, mostly Latinx population under the age of 18. They argue that it is in their best interest to ensure that the young, mostly Latinx youth have access to quality education and that the educational gaps are closed because, as tax-paying adults, they will contribute to medical, retirement, and social services and they will most likely purchase their homes when the retiring baby boomers decide to sell or downsize.

    Educational Attainment of Hispanic Population in the U.S., 2017. The chart shows that approximately 60% of the entire adult Latinx population attained a high school degree or less, significantly higher than the rate of the American population at 40%.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Educational Attainment of Hispanic Population in the U.S., 2017. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center)

    Health and Healthcare System

    According to the Pew Center, in 2014 a quarter of the Latinx population did not have health insurance compared to 14% of the overall U.S. population. The disparity grows when you take into account immigration and citizenship status. For instance, for the U.S.-born Latinx population the health insurance gap with the overall U.S. population is reduced to 3 percentage points (17% to 14%, respectively) while this gap increases considerably for the foreign-born Latinx population (39% to 14%, respectively). Considering that most of the American population accesses health insurance through their employers, this gap is largely related to the occupational status of immigrant workers who are concentrated in occupations that do not provide work-related health insurance. The lack of access to healthcare is also associated with limited regular checkups, preventative medical practices, early detection of illness or disease, and overall worse health outcomes. This disparity is also evident among different age groups. For instance, 34% of the foreign-born Latinx population is uninsured compared to 12% of the U.S.-born Latinx population. These numbers show that the Latinx population, especially immigrant families, would benefit from health coverage mandates for employers or a universal health care system (Krogstad & Lopez, 2014).

    Hispanic Immigrants More Likely than U.S.-born to Lack Health Insurance 2014. The chart shows that a quarter of the Latinx population did not have health insurance compared to 14% of the overall U.S. population.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Hispanic Immigrants More Likely than U.S.-born to Lack Health Insurance 2014. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center)

    Political System

    For decades, the Latinx population was referred to as "the sleeping giant" of politics in the United States because of its potential to significantly impact both local and national elections. In his book Harvest of Empire, Juan Gonzalez refers to the decade of the 1990s as a turning point for the Latinx population, when the organizing and voter registration efforts of Latinx political organizations such as the Southwest Voter Registration Project (SVREP) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) really began to move the needle on Latinx voter registration and turnout. He refers to the period after 1995 as the rise of the "Third Force" in American politics, breaking away from the Black/white dichotomy and assumptions of previous eras.

    In terms of the eligible voter population, the Latinx population accounts for 39% of the increase between 2000 and 2018. In comparison, the white population accounts for 24%, African Americans account for 17%, and Asian-American account for 14%.

    The chart shows that most of the growth in the electorate since 2000 has come from Hispanic, Black and Asian eligible voters
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\):The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the U.S. Electorate. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center)

    Figure 8.4.x shows that significant increase in Latinx voter turnout for a midterm election. While in 2014, 6.8 out of 25.1 million (27%) Latinx eligible voters turned out to voter, in 2018 this increased to 11.7 million out of 29 million (40%). This represents a 13% increase in voter turnout.

    The chart shows that there was a significant increase in Latinx voter turnout for a midterm election.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Latino Voter Turnout in 2018 reached a record high for a midterm election year. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center)

    With regard to political affiliation, Cuban-American registered voters are much more likely to identify as Republicans. Figure 8.4.6 shows that 58% of Cubans identified as Republicans compared to only 32% of non-Cuban Latinx people. Conversely, only 38% of Cubans identified as Democrats compared to 65% of their non-Cuban counterparts.

    The chart shows that Most Cuban Americans voters identify as Republican in 2020.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Most Cuban Americans voters identify as Republican in 2020. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center)

    Family Dynamics

    Familism refers a sense of closeness and obligation to the family unit and even placing the interests and needs of the family unit ahead of individual needs and desires. There may be positive and negative consequences of high rates of familism. One negative consequence with regard to educational attainments may include discouraging youths from pursuing a higher education in order to provide for the family unit. There are also positive consequences which include the availability of family networks, emotional support during times of crisis, financial assistance, caring for the young and the elderly, and cultural and linguistic maintenance. In their comprehensive study on Latinx family structure, Landale, Oropesa, & Bradatan (2006) found that Latinx families do have higher rates of variables associated with "familism" such as intact families, lower rates of divorce and cohabitation, and more likely to care for their elderly relatives compared to their white and African-American counterparts. However, they also found difference across Latinx subgroups and declining rates of "familism" across Latinx generations.

    Machismo and marianismo are terms related to gender identity and expectations and commonly linked to gender and family dynamics in Latin American societies. In Latinx families, machismo is a form of traditional masculinity that, on the one hand, may include more positive aspects such as taking responsibility for the family, chivalry, and protector. Gill & Vasquez (1996) describe this side of machismo as el caballero ("the gentleman") often personified in film and television, who protects his wife and family from dangers and is chivalrous but still afflicted by machismo. On the other hand, machismo is also associated with negative and harmful aspects such as sexual domination, aggressiveness, and expectation of submissiveness for women and children (Gill and Vasquez, 1996). Marianismo is the complementary female role for Latinx women, who are expected to personify the ideals of true femininity, such as being modest, virtuous and abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage. The term derives from the paradoxical beliefs of the Virgin Mary and most likely originated during the Spanish Colonial Period in Latin America. Gill and Vasquez (2006) write that marianismo is about "dispensing care and pleasure, not receiving them", suffering the negative consequences of machismo and mariansmo in silence, and submission to patriarchical forces and family dynamics.

    Picture with the words "El Machismo Mata translated as "Machismo Kills" painted on a wall.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): "El Machismo Mata.(Trans. "Machismo Kills") (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; lorena pajares via Flickr)

    Despite the existence of evidence of cultural dynamics such as familism and machismo in Latinx families, it is important to not reduce the behaviors and experiences of ethnic groups entirely to culture. This is referred to as cultural essentialism and may lead to a "culture of deficiency" approach to defining and analyzing the social experiences of Latinx and other racial/ethnic groups. Also, cultural essentialism may also prevent one from considering the importance of other important social forces, such as social class or racial discrimination. Gonzalez-Lopez & Vidal-Ortiz (2008) remind researchers that such cultural paradigms are not used when studying non-Latinx groups but with Latinx groups they have become "uncritically accepted - and they have become shorthand to explain gender inequality from a culture-blaming perspective" (p. 312).

    Contributors and Attributions

    Works Cited

    • Gill R. & Vasquez, C. (1996). The Maria Paradox: How Latinas Can Merge Old World Traditions with New World Self-Esteem. New York: Putnam.
    • Gonzalez-Lopez, G. & Vidal-Ortiz, S. (2008). Latinas and Latinos, sexuality and society: A critical sociological perspective in Latinas/os in Rodriguez, H. et al (Eds.). 2008. The United States: Changing the Face of America. New York: Springer. p. 308-322.
    • Krogstad J.M., Gonzalez-Barrera A., & Noe-Bustamante L. (2020). U.S. Latinos among hardest hit by pay cuts, job losses due to Coronavirus. Pew Research Center.
    • Krogstad J.M. & Lopez M.H. (2014, September). Hispanic immigrants more likely to lack health insurance than U.S. born. Pew Research Center.
    • Landale N., Oropesa R., & Bradatan C. (2006) Hispanic families in the US: Family structure and process in an era of family change. in Tienda, M. & Mitchell, F. (Eds.). 2006. Hispanics and the Future of America. Washington, DC: National Academies Press
    • Light M., He J., & Robey J. (2020, December). Comparing crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
    • Myers, D. (2007). Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America. Russell Sage.
    • Educational attainment of Hispanic population in the U.S. (2019). Pew Research Center.
    • Vigdor, J. (2008). Measuring immigrant assimilation in the United States. Manhattan Institute.