More Hispanics in USA fluent in English
By Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg, USA TODAY
More Spanish speakers are speaking English very well despite a steady influx of immigrants this decade — a sign that they are blending in at least linguistically, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Census data released Tuesday.
The drop in the percentage who struggle with English is most noticeable in some of the largest counties and cities that have attracted immigrants for decades.
In Los Angeles County, the percentage of the Spanish-speaking population that has trouble with English slid from 21% in 2000 to 19.6% in 2005-07, the three years measured in the data released today. In El Paso, the share dropped from 32% to 28.5%.
In many places, the share has not increased despite growth in immigration: Pima County, Ariz., which includes Tucson, at 8.4%; Atlanta's Fulton County at 4.1%.
In many new destinations for Hispanics, however, the inability to speak English fluently is a growing challenge. In some smaller counties in Colorado, South Carolina and some other states, the number of Hispanics who say they don't speak English "very well" has risen.
In Prince William County, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the share more than doubled to 9.3% or almost 30,000 people.
In Oregon's Clackamas County, southeast of Portland, about 5,000 more people who speak Spanish don't speak English "very well." They total more than 11,000 or about 3% of the population.
The new American Community Survey offers the first detailed demographic profile since the 2000 Census of places with as few as 20,000 people.
When people respond to the Census survey by saying they speak English "very well," it means they're fluent. Anything less means that people often can't read bank statements, rental agreements and warning labels and have difficulty communicating with a doctor or police officer, linguists and demographers say.
Homeownership and naturalization are more important gauges of assimilation than English fluency but language is the most visible, says Dowell Myers, demographer at the University of Southern California. "What affects people the most is the language around them. It's the most symbolic … a real flashpoint."
In Greenville County, S.C., the number of Hispanics who don't speak English fluently doubled to more than 14,000 — 3.7% of the population — this decade. The county provides interpreters for hospitals, welfare offices and jails, says Lottie Gibson, a member of the Greenville County Council.
"The faces of Greenville are changing," Gibson says. "They need to be able to speak English. It's frustrating to a lot of people to go into restaurants and have them not understand what you have to say."
Winnebago County, an industrial hub 90 miles west of Chicago, had a surge of mostly Mexican immigrants this decade. The share who are not fluent in English jumped from 2.8% to 4.4% — almost 5,000 people.
"It's been difficult to absorb," says Patricia Gomez, executive director of La Voz Latina, a non-profit group that offers social services to immigrants. The day and evening English classes the group offers in conjunction with community colleges are full.
"English fluency is essential for new immigrants … but the adults often struggle," she says. "Sometimes we're too impatient for new immigrants to learn English. Fifty or 100 years ago, it was understood that the first generation would not be speaking English."
Many smaller counties are experiencing more growth in their foreign-born populations than large cities.
"It's clear that the foreign-born are dispersing into smaller places," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the data. "It's pretty widespread and it's pretty dramatic."
New immigrants are almost as likely to go to the suburbs and beyond as they are to cities, he says. "It's something that we didn't see in the '90s."
The data also show that poverty rates in midsize counties, small towns and rural areas are greater than in larger places, according to an analysis by Mark Mather, demographer at the Population Reference Bureau.
Poverty rates from 2005 through 2007 were highest among children, especially those in less-populated areas: 23% of children in small counties were poor, compared with 18% in large counties.
The gap between children and seniors is widening, he says. Social Security and Medicare have helped keep more seniors out of poverty. The data don't capture the impact of the current recession.
"Families with children have not fared as well and could see even higher poverty rates in the future," Mather says.
English a challenge
The share and number of people 5 and older in the USA's 150 most populous cities who say they speak Spanish at home and who speak English less than "very well." (Other survey choices: "well," "not well" and "not at all.")
Sources: Census Bureau, USA TODAY analysis by Paul Overberg