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Iowa State University Extension

Food, housing or health care: Latino immigrants face quandary, research shows

Latino immigrant family

Do you feed the family, or pay the rent or medical bill? That’s reality for many Latino immigrant families in Iowa. Data from the multi-state Rural Families Speak project show the tough choices these families face as they figure out how to stretch their limited incomes to cover food, housing and health care costs.

Why study immigrant families? The growth in Iowa’s Latino population is helping to prevent population loss in the state’s rural communities, said Kimberly Greder, an associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies and family life extension state specialist at Iowa State University. Immigrant families purchase goods in communities, earn income and add to the tax base.

This particular study examined in depth the lives of Latino immigrant families in Iowa and in Oregon, Greder said. The 48 participants were predominantly Mexican mothers who had immigrated to the United States within the last 15 years, had children 12 years of age or younger and had poverty-level incomes.

Mothers were asked about their ability to feed and provide shelter for their families. Most were married, and they and their spouses worked extra hours or held multiple low-wage jobs to support their families. Commonly they worked opposite shifts so one parent could care for their children.

Over the three-year study, a third of the families (almost all in Iowa) were continually “food secure,” Greder said. They were able to get enough food at all times in socially acceptable ways for an active, healthy life. Close to one half were in and out of food security, and one fifth (almost all in Oregon) were continually food insecure.

However, for those who were able to get enough food, “all it takes is getting an illness, being in an accident or losing a job for these families to not have enough food to eat,” Greder said. “If you don’t pay your rent or house payment, you don’t have a place to live. If you are injured, you can’t work and earn money.”

Understanding how to best help immigrant families learn to navigate the resources and systems in their new communities, as well as earn adequate incomes to support themselves, will result in long lasting benefits to communities, Greder said.

This article appeared in June 2009 -- From Jack Payne Newsletter