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Tennessee has the third-fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. But the size of the state’s Latino population is still smaller than the national average, according to a recently released UT study.

Restructuring in the food processing industry, especially poultry slaughtering, has increased the demand for low-wage, low-skill labor, attracting a lot of Hispanic workers to the rural South and many parts of Tennessee, according to the report, produced by the Tennessee State Data Center. The center is based in UT’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER).

“This is our first look at the Hispanic population,” said Bill Fox, CBER executive director. “We felt it is important for Tennessee to be informed.”

The report examines the impact of Hispanic population growth on the state’s economy, labor force, education system, and social services sector.

Latinos represent 4.6 percent of Tennessee’s population, according to the 2010 Census. In 2000, the Hispanic population was 2.2 percent.

“Even though the growth rate was very high, the number of Hispanic persons is still much lower than the national average (at 16.3 percent),” the report states.

In addition to changes in the food processing industry, reorganization in the auto industry—which has caused companies to take advantage of lower wages and a friendlier business climate in the South, and spurring some second- and third-tier car parts suppliers to move to small towns—is attracting new Hispanic workers among others.

“The new small-town jobs are often available year-round, and it is no longer true that rural immigrant labor is primarily seasonal,” the report states. It has “encouraged permanent settlement by Latinos in the rural South.”

Hispanic workers contribute to the state’s economy by purchasing many goods and services, by paying sales and other consumption taxes, by reducing the price of goods and services they produce, and by raising the productivity of labor-intensive industries, according to the report.

Illegal migrants are generally not eligible for many public services, the report states, but legal and native-born migrants qualify for public services. Most of the children, because they’re native-born Americans, are eligible.

When it comes to education, Hispanic children have special needs, particularly in regards to learning English and involving their parents in the educational process.

“If these needs are ignored, Tennessee risks acquiring a second generation of Hispanic students with below average high school completion rates, with few job skills, and with low labor productivity,” the report states.

“This second generation will consist of US citizens with full access to social services. Their low wages and low skills will likely make them economically dependent on these services.”

The trend can be reversed, however, with effective education. One strategy that may be effective is early childhood education.

“Young Hispanic children have some of the strongest positive responses to high quality early childhood education,” the report states.

More of the report’s key findings:

  • The state has two very different subpopulations of Latinos: foreign-born workers and young children who were born in the United States.
  • Latinos live in every county of Tennessee but the largest numbers are in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga and their suburbs, and Rutherford and Montgomery counties.
  • The foreign-born population is primarily from Mexico. But most did not move here directly from Mexico but from elsewhere in the United States, particularly Georgia, California, Texas, and Florida.

To read the report in its entirety, visit the CBER website (pdf).


Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

Bill Fox (865-974-6075, billfox@utk.edu)