Latinos are making economic gains in Chicago suburbs and deserve more political power

La Casa Norte staffers and volunteers participate in a “get out the vote” campaign targeting Latinos in Chicago, Feb. 24. Latino political power is still lacking, two policy leaders write.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As the Latino population grows beyond the borders of the city, Latinos are an increasingly essential part of the Chicago region’s social and economic fabric. Our new report, Latinos in the Suburbs, a joint effort of the Latino Policy Forum, Metropolitan Planning Council, and the University of Illinois Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, confirms Latinos were responsible for most of the region’s growth between 2010 and 2020, increasing their number in every county.

As has been the case for at least the past two decades, the Latino population is trending up across the region, including in suburban communities that historically have not seen large Latino populations.

Latino population growth brings critical contributions to local suburban economies and to our regional economy as a whole. Latinos have the highest labor force participation rate of any racial or ethnic group in the region, and they represent the fastest-growing segment of spending power — a total of $68 billion in Illinois.

Opinion bug


The last decade featured some positive trends for Latinos settling in the suburbs: reduced levels of poverty, fewer overcrowded households, fewer adults without a high school diploma, increases in educational attainment, and a larger share of the population with gains in household income.

But these gains are not enough to reduce persistent gaps that exist between Latino and non-Latino households. Household incomes are rising for Latinos, but white per capita income is still two to three times greater than that of Latinos. This means that more household members have to work longer hours to generate enough income to be able to afford a home, raise a family and live a healthy life.

When talking about the cost of housing, one suburban Latina we surveyed noted that the way many Latino suburban families are surviving is to have multiple families living together She said: “I have seen everything go up in the last year. The rent and everything. And I see in the houses, to help pay [for] them, there are multiple people, not just one family. There could be two or three families. Because everything is going up.”

In 2020, six out of every 10 Latino households in the suburbs were categorized as “high hardship” by the Great Cities Institute — the confluence of sociodemographic indicators of economic hardship, such as poverty, unemployment and crowded housing, among others.

Doing more with less

This translates to more barriers to well-being and increased pressure to do more with less. And new threats to well-being are emerging, including a tightening housing market, rising rents and transportation costs, which threaten the gains many Latinos in the region have made.

Finally, the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suburban Latinos is still unclear. Even the best data is incomplete, but we know Latinos were hit disproportionately hard. Despite some of the highest rates of illness and infection, lower access to health care, and fewer worker protections, Latinos kept working in person, and they helped keep the economy stable.

As the Chicago area’s Latino population continues to grow faster in the suburbs than in the city, and Latinos disperse across an array of suburban municipalities, their political power and representation are often diluted. We need more vital regional coordination between county and municipal policymakers and between leaders in philanthropy and the private sector to ensure that Latinos are on a path to improved well-being.

Planners and policymakers must center the needs of Latinos in regional discussions and decisions to ensure Latinos’ influence is commensurate with their socioeconomic contributions to the region. This means tackling emerging crises in affordable housing and transit access and ensuring that Latinos are on a stable path to increased income and educational attainment.

The Latino voice is growing in strength across the Chicago region, and those voices are essential to a future we all share. It’s high time we started listening.

Sylvia Puente is president and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum. Daniel Cooper is a senior director of research at the Metropolitan Planning Council.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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