A cul­tural chasm opens — it’s boomers vs. young mi­nori­ties

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - RON­ALD BROWN­STEIN Ron­ald Brown­stein is a se­nior writer at the Na­tional Jour­nal. rbrown­stein@na­tion­aljour­nal.com

Cities have al­ways been Amer­ica’s cru­cibles of change. When mil­lions of Euro­pean im­mi­grants re­cast the na­tion’s iden­tity dur­ing the Melt­ing Pot era a cen­tury ago, they landed and lived mostly in cities. To­day, the United States is living through the most pro­found de­mo­graphic change since that time — and cities again rep­re­sent the front line.

In our era, the United States is experiencing two de­mo­graphic tran­si­tions: It is grow­ing more di­verse, es­pe­cially in its youth pop­u­la­tion, and it is also aging, as the pre­dom­i­nantly white baby boomers move to­ward re­tire­ment. A com­pelling re­port re­leased Fri­day from USC’s Pro­gram for En­vi­ron­men­tal and Re­gional Eq­uity (PERE), “Talkin’ ’Bout Our Gen­er­a­tions,” un­der­scores that it is mostly in metropoli­tan ar­eas where th­ese two gen­er­a­tions will find com­mon ground — or not.

The twin de­mo­graphic tran­si­tions are widen­ing what an­a­lysts call a “cul­tural gen­er­a­tion gap” be­tween the di­ver­si­fy­ing youth pop­u­la­tion (the Cen­sus Bureau projects that mi­nori­ties will be­come the ma­jor­ity of the United States’ un­der-18 pop­u­la­tion in this decade) and a se­nior pop­u­la­tion that re­mains about 80% white.

Th­ese two gi­ant blocs — what I call the brown and the gray — have be­come the com­pet­ing poles of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, with Demo­cratic-lean­ing younger mi­nori­ties sup­port­ing in­creased public spend­ing, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas such as ed­u­ca­tion and health­care, and older whites, who are in­creas­ingly Repub­li­can, mostly re­sist­ing it.

That con­trast is es­pe­cially vis­i­ble in and around cities. As the PERE re­port doc­u­ments, mi­nori­ties al­ready make up the ma­jor­ity of young peo­ple in 53 of the na­tion’s 150 largest metropoli­tan ar­eas, and at least 40% in 26 more. (Young peo­ple of color are es­pe­cially dom­i­nant in the big­gest cities.)

Mean­while, whites con­sti­tute a ma­jor­ity of se­niors in all but four of the largest metro ar­eas and at least three-fifths of se­niors in all but 12.

Though their pol­i­tics have di­verged, the des­tinies of th­ese two gi­ant gen­er­a­tions re­main in­ter­twined. Sev­eral stud­ies project that mi­nori­ties will pro­vide all of the na­tion’s net new work­ers through 2030.

And as the over­all U.S. pop­u­la­tion ages, those work­ers must pro­vide the taxes that fund So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care for a swelling num­ber of (mostly white) re­tirees, notes PERE Direc­tor Manuel Pas­tor, who coau­thored the study.

“We are cre­at­ing a group of adults that [will] need to be far more pro­duc­tive … to sup­port a larger share of re­tired adults,” Pas­tor says. “That means we need peo­ple to get a bet­ter start in life and to have a much sharper tra­jec­tory to higher earn­ings be­cause they will be sup­port­ing more peo­ple with their taxes.”

In­stead, the op­po­site is hap­pen­ing. In 1979, house­holds headed by some­one be­tween 25 and 34 had a me­dian in­come 2% lower than house­holds led by those be­tween 55 and 64. To­day the younger house­holds earn 18% less than the older ones; in in­fla­tion-ad­justed dol­lars, younger house­holds are worse off than in 1979.

The fi­nan­cial crash’s long af­ter­math partly ex­plains that de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. But it also re­flects the con­tin­u­ing short­fall in earn­ings and ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment among the young mi­nori­ties who rep­re­sent a grow­ing por­tion of the younger pop­u­la­tion.

While African Amer­i­can and Latino ed­u­ca­tion lev­els are im­prov­ing, the share of adults in both groups with four-year col­lege de­grees still lags far be­hind whites in all ma­jor cities. That erodes their abil­ity to com­pete for jobs, even in the cities most ef­fec­tively gen­er­at­ing them.

In an es­pe­cially com­pelling anal­y­sis, the re­port shows that fast-growth cities are re­ly­ing more on im­port­ing well-ed­u­cated work­ers from else­where than on ed­u­cat­ing their own res­i­dents. In all 10 cities that have cre­ated the most jobs since 2000, the share of adults with col­lege de­grees born in the same state lags be­hind — of­ten well be­hind — the share of col­lege-ed­u­cated adults who have come from else­where in the United States.

This pat­tern can’t persist in­def­i­nitely, be­cause most of Amer­ica’s kids are be­ing born in fast-growth cities, and most of them are non­white: Even­tu­ally there won’t be enough (mostly white) young col­lege grad­u­ates to lure from else­where. That means cities will need to bet­ter equip more of their own kids.

To achieve that, the re­port ar­gues, cities must in­vest in en­hanc­ing prospects for low­in­come kids through ev­ery­thing from ex­panded preschool to im­proved trans­porta­tion op­tions.

As a first step to­ward ac­tion, the au­thors praise ini­tia­tives in places such as Seat­tle, Min­neapo­lis and Char­lotte, N.C., to chart lo­cal dis­par­i­ties and spur con­ver­sa­tions about closing them.

The para­dox fac­ing cities is that the eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties threat­en­ing them are rooted in na­tional and in­ter­na­tional forces (like global com­pe­ti­tion) mostly be­yond their con­trol. Yet, as Pas­tor notes, the con­se­quences of those trends are most vis­i­ble lo­cally, which makes it eas­ier “for peo­ple to rec­og­nize their com­mon des­tiny.” That aware­ness has spurred a surge of lo­cal ini­tia­tives aimed at eco­nomic in­clu­sion, like the push to raise mu­nic­i­pal min­i­mum-wage lev­els.

But the United States isn’t likely to pro­duce broadly shared growth un­til both our na­tional and lo­cal poli­cies rec­og­nize that there is no eco­nomic se­cu­rity for the gray with­out eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity for the brown.

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