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The future of the American economy is Hispanic and female

New York(CNN Business) Tuesday commemorates Equal Pay Day, which represents the number of days into the year that American women would have to work in order to catch up to what men made the year before.

But for Hispanic women, that day won't come until November.

The wage gap for women who identify as "Hispanic or Latino" is larger than that of any other racial or ethnic group tracked by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the median, they earn 63 cents for every dollar American men earn, compared to 81 cents for women overall.

While the wage gap is a blunt metric and doesn't account for differences in occupation between men and women, it has nevertheless become a powerful symbol of how far women remain behind men in terms of earning power.

In the US economy, Hispanic women have long earned some of the lowest wages among women — but now, there are signs they could start to catch up quickly.

About 70% of Hispanic and Latina women between ages 25 and 54, have a job or are looking for one. While that's still lower than the broader population — about 83% of all prime-age working people participate in the labor force — Latinas are now the only demographic group to surpass their previous record for labor force participation in the early 2000s.

And with a median age of 29 years, almost a decade younger than the average US woman, Hispanic women's earning power has a lot of room to run.

Stacie de Armas, vice president for strategic initiatives and consumer engagement at the consumer data company Nielsen, says she expects Latinas to meet or exceed average income levels as they age.

"I think we have shining stars ahead of us," says de Armas, who is Hispanic herself.

Rising from behind

The current gap between Hispanic women and non-Hispanic white people stems from a number of historical disadvantages that have been fading in recent years.

Earlier generations of Hispanic women faced challenges like a language barrier, exclusion from the formal labor market because of their citizenship status, and lack of access to higher education. They have typically started bearing children at younger ages and had a higher-than-average number of children, making it more difficult to go to work. Hispanic women are still more concentrated in lower-paid service jobs — like food preparation and office cleaning — than white women.

All of that is changing.

The share of Latinas starting college right after high school has now surpassed that of the general population, the Census Bureau reported in 2015, even though it takes them longer on average to graduate because they tend to work while taking classes. Immigrant Latinas start businesses at a higher rate than non-Hispanic white women, according to Census data. They're more commonly second or third generation Americans with no legal barriers to the labor market.

They're also delaying starting families, and having fewer children when they do. The fertility rate for Hispanic women over their lifetimes dropped from nearly three kids each in 2007 to about two in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control reported. The average age for Hispanic women at first birth was 25 in 2017, up from 23 in 2006.

Briana Roman, 24, is indicative of the shift. She graduated from Baruch College in 2017 after five years, since she was working and doing internships for most of her time in school. She now works in the counseling office at Barnard College, and plans to focus on her career for at least a decade before having kids — a different path from her Puerto Rican mother, who gave birth to Briana at age 22.

"It was instilled in me, I wanted to go to college right after high school," Roman said. "I want to work for a bit, establish myself, and then have a family."

Dollars speak

As their population grows, young women like Roman are becoming an increasingly important force in the consumer economy, and retailers are only now catching up to their shopping preferences.

According to Nielsen's survey data, Latinas in general are more likely than the average non-Hispanic white woman to purchase athletic clothing and sporting equipment, skincare and fragrances, and groceries rather than going out. They also are more likely to own smartphones, engage with brands more on social media and broadcast their purchases to friends.

When Latinas do have children, they are more likely to be single mothers — which means they control all of their household spending, as opposed to just part of it when they're raising kids with a partner. Nielsen surveys show they even shop more frequently for men's clothing than non-Hispanic women do, and are generally more cost-conscious.

Hispanic people overall accounted for $1.5 trillion, or 10.4% of total US buying power in 2018, according to the Selig Center at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business. That's a 212% jump from 2000. Over the same time period, the buying power of the broader US population grew at less than half that rate. By 2060 the Census Bureau projects that Hispanic people will make up 30% of the population under age 35.

Women in general are increasingly likely to purchase luxury goods, on their own, rather than waiting for a husband or boyfriend to give them a ring or perfume or a scarf. That's fueled female consumption over and above what retailers saw before the big decline in female labor force participation during the 2000s. That a trend that has fueled a wave of female consumption over the past 18 years �� along with a crop of startups that target women's impulses to self-adorn.

"Women are getting married later, so they're independent longer," said Boston Consulting Group managing director Sarah Willersdorf. "And I think also, women feeling more empowered and justified in treating themselves is another emotion that's driving it."

That doesn't mean, however, that women are excessive spenders. Women are less likely than men to say they would use more disposable income to buy things, and more likely to pay down debt instead, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey conducted in January.

Multiplied throughout the economy, that could mean slightly slower economic growth — but also greater financial stability, since households with less leverage fare better during economic downturns.

Seeing yourself in an ad

Retailers are coming around to the idea that women are increasingly likely to be breadwinners, and promoting their products accordingly. Marshall Cohen, a retail industry analyst with the NPD Group, applauded General Mills for switching up gender roles in its advertising.

"They're really making a concerted effort from their marketing campaigns," Cohen says. "All of a sudden now you see dad serving breakfast."

Latinas specifically, however, don't always feel that brands are speaking to them — a big missed opportunity.

Nancy Genova is the president of 100 Hispanic Women, a networking group based in New York City that gives scholarships to young Hispanic women and puts on events. They hosted one recently at a Michael Kors store, Genova says, and members bought thousands of dollars worth of the trendy handbags.

But she rarely sees luxury brands featuring Hispanic women in their advertising — and precious few in other industries, from healthcare to financial services.

"If you don't see yourself in it, you don't think you could be in it," says Genova. "I'm kind of perplexed by the whole thing."

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