By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 1999; Page V01
Alexandria's Hispanic population is growing and includes more immigrants
from Central American countries than ever before. The population
struggles with English and is relatively poor, and the majority of adults have
limited education, according to the results of a survey of the city's Hispanic
residents released last week.
The survey, conducted from 1998 to 1999 by nonprofit groups led by the
Alexandria United Way and in conjunction with community organizations,
local government and private citizens, is intended to give local agencies and
policymakers current information about the changing Hispanic community.
The goal of the effort, which took three years to conceptualize and
complete and included interviews with nearly 500 residents, was to update
a survey done 10 years earlier, and by doing so, help service providers
and planners increase outreach opportunities and improve programs and
services, officials said.
"We wanted to see where immigrants were coming from and what the
population looked like to better understand the Alexandria community,"
said Patrice Linehan, a volunteer with United Way and research
coordinator for the survey. "We didn't want to know just about the needs,
we also wanted to know more about the people."
Alexandria's population, according to census data, is 60 percent white,
percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. The Hispanic
population has grown dramatically since 1980, when census figures
showed that Hispanics made up only 4 percent of the city's population.
The population of school-age Hispanic children has grown even more
rapidly--from 4 percent in 1980 to 23 percent today. The city's Hispanic
community is largely concentrated in the West End and Arlandria.
While the majority of those who completed the survey--about 64
percent--said they had not completed high school, adults placed a high
priority on their children's education and said they expected their children
to finish high school, and 67 percent said they expected their children to
attend a four-year college.
Among Alexandria's new Hispanic residents are families that come from
Central and South America--particularly El Salvador--according to the
survey, which shows that the new immigrants are mostly young adults with
elementary school age children. Most come to the United States with no
more than eight years of schooling, cannot understand English and have
few job skills.
Officials said the language barrier and lack of job training make it hard
many immigrants to find employment. According to the study, the
per-capita income of Alexandria's Hispanic community is $7,306, and
nearly half of those residents go without health insurance for themselves
and their families.
"We have confirmed what we long felt, that Alexandria's Hispanic
population is poorer than we really imagined," said Howard Spiegelman,
chairman of the assessment study committee and director of community
resources for Alexandria schools. "The level of poverty all around was
Language proficiency--both English and Spanish--surfaced as a major
problem for the city's Hispanic residents, the vast majority of whom said
they needed help speaking, reading or writing English. In addition, 28
percent said someone in their household needed help reading their native
Spanish, and 25 percent said help was needed with writing it.
"It's becoming very evident to us in the school system and the city how
many parents are illiterate in their own language," Spiegelman said, adding
that the schools will sometimes send information, written in Spanish, home
to parents who can't read it. In turn, the parents can't help their children
learn to read or write in Spanish or English. "Often the children help the
The survey data, officials said, depict a community in need of special
services, and those services are not reaching enough people.
The survey found that English as a Second Language classes were used by
43 percent of the households that need help reading, writing or speaking
English. Services to help find medical care were used by 22 percent.
However, 30 to 36 percent of households reported needing, but not using,
ESL classes, other education classes, job training or employment services,
information on public benefits and services to help find health care.
Asked why they didn't take advantage of such services, 36 percent said
they didn't know where to find help; 30 percent said they had no
transportation; and 27 percent said they had no child care.
While the overall population of Alexandria had a median household income
of $61,408 in 1996, the survey found that the median Hispanic household
income was $30,000. At the time of the survey, the unemployment rate for
all city residents was 2.1 percent, while the unemployment rate for
Hispanics surveyed was 12 percent. Of those who were employed, 66
percent held full-time jobs.
Asked why members of their households were out of work, 36 percent
said they couldn't find child care. Others cited age or disability, lack of job
skills, inability to speak English or no work permit or transportation.
Of those who completed the survey, 60 percent of the households
reported receiving assistance from federal or state programs for
low-income residents. Forty-four percent of respondents said their children
received subsidized school lunches.
Ricardo Drumond, a Latin American affairs specialist for Alexandria's
Department of Human Services, worked on both the 1989 survey and this
latest effort, which he said was done to educate the community, citizens
and policymakers alike.
"One of the goals when we worked on the survey was not to editorialize,
Drumond said. "We wanted to present something that was unbiased, so
people could draw their own conclusions."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company