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Poll Findings: On Cuban-Americans And The Elusive 'American Dream'

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Among Latinos, no group may have achieved the American dream as fully as Cuban-Americans.

Since arriving here, as a community, they've prospered. Surveys show they graduate from college at greater rates and have higher levels of homeownership than most other Latino groups.

But a new poll suggests that, for many Cuban-Americans, the dream is becoming elusive. The poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health finds that 45 percent of Cuban-Americans say their finances are not so good or poor. They see themselves as financially troubled at rates higher than other Latinos.

One of those who took part in the poll was Floresdilia Martinez. She's 24 years old, a second-generation Cuban-American. Martinez has looked for work ever since graduating from high school more than five years ago, without success. She says, "I would fill out application upon application trying to find a job. And no one ever called back."

Martinez's parents arrived in Miami from Cuba at a time when the economy was booming — her father in the 1960s, her mother a little later. For them, she says, finding work was easier. "Oh, yeah," she says. "My mom was working ever since she was 14."

Robert Blendon with the Harvard School of Public Health says Cuban-Americans are also worried about the future. In the survey, 60 percent of Cuban-Americans said they were worried about possible unemployment. "They are more so than other Latinos," Blendon says, "if they're employed or have an employed family member, to be worried about losing a job in the next year."

One reason for the economic worries among Cuban-Americans, Blendon suspects, is where they live.

It's been more than 50 years now since the Cuban revolution that prompted tens of thousands of Cubans to begin fleeing their homeland. Most arrived in Miami. Today, more than half of the nation's Cuban-Americans live in Miami-Dade County.

For years now, Miami's unemployment rate has been above the national average. Many homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

Nicholas Jane is a young Cuban-American, just 22, who took part in the poll. He's discouraged about his financial outlook and also that of his parents.

"My dad is the only one that has a steady job, and even he, between 2003, 2004, he was completely unemployed and he couldn't find a job. My mom has not been able to find a steady job, and neither have I. So, it's been tough," Jane says.

The financial uncertainty and job worries of Cuban-Americans have a lot to do with their concentration in an area still struggling to recover. But Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at Florida International University in Miami, believes they reveal something else about Cuban-Americans: Their demographics are changing.

The wave of Cubans who arrived in the early 1960s, Grenier says, came as Miami was just beginning to transform from a small Southern city into an international metropolis.

"They've benefited from the growth," Grenier says. "Cubans are the Brahmins of the community in many ways.

But that earlier generation now is becoming outnumbered by Cubans who arrived more recently. In the past decade, more than 300,000 Cubans have arrived in the U.S.

"The Cubans arriving now are way poorer. They're getting hired at minimum-wage jobs. They get very little, very few benefits. And their English is not great," Grenier says. And even in Miami, Grenier says, you need English to climb the economic ladder.

This combination of factors — a slowly recovering South Florida economy and changing demographics — are making Cuban-Americans more like other Latino groups in the U.S.

For a young person like Nicholas Jane, who's graduating from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree later this year, what he's finding is not what he feels he was promised.

"The American dream, at least for Cuban-Americans of my generation, it just doesn't seem like it's plausible anymore. It's very hard not to get an anxiety attack from thinking about the future and thinking about, 'Oh, am I able to have a nice house?' and all these other things."

Researchers say data show that today Cuban-Americans do better economically if they leave Miami. Jane is taking that point to heart. After graduation, he says, he's not even looking for work in Miami. His most recent interview was for a job in Japan.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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