AIKEN - South Carolina's growing Hispanic population totals more than 400,000 people, four times higher than official estimates, and will have a buying power of more than $4 billion by 2008, a University of South Carolina Aiken professor said this week.
As part of the nation's fastest-growing ethnic or racial segment, Hispanics have a presence and economic impact in the Palmetto State that is vastly underestimated, Dr. Elaine Lacy, an associate professor in the school's department of history and political science, said in an interview Wednesday.
Dr. Lacy, who has been studying economic, social and demographic trends in the state's Hispanic community for more than a decade, said South Carolina has become an umbilical cord to Mexico, providing many Mexicans a second home and job opportunities not available south of the border and allowing them to ship much-needed cash back to families left behind.
"It's really an opportunity and a challenge," she added.
A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2002 showed there were 104,000 Hispanics in South Carolina, a number Dr. Lacy said was actually as much as four times larger. In Georgia, there were 502,000 Hispanics.
Many Hispanics tend to go uncounted, she said, because they're here illegally, they mistrust the government or are biracial and list themselves as a different race.
The presence of Hispanics can be seen in the growing number of restaurants and shops that cater to that community, but it also can be seen Saturday mornings at Wal-Mart, Dr. Lacy said.
Hispanics tend to be thrifty and spend their money on inexpensive items of necessity, such as clothing and food. Dr. Lacy's current research, which she's conducting in 11 counties, including Edgefield and Aiken, shows that more than 60 percent of the Hispanics she interviewed send money home.
A shifting economy has made the migration north more of a necessity for many Mexicans. The North American Free Trade Agreement has made it cheaper for Mexicans to buy imported corn than corn grown in their own country, she said.
Technological advances have made the transition easier. Dr. Lacy's research shows 97 percent of immigrants speak to family in their home countries at least once every two months, assisted by calling cards.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895
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