The color of inequality

America must deal with the reality that its growing generation gap is also a racial/ethnic divide

May 20, 2010|By Andrew L. Yarrow

We've all heard about America's aging population, its immigration challenges and its fiscal irresponsibility — but we rarely think about how these disparate, disturbing trends intersect.

Think about the "cultural generation gap," a compelling concept introduced in a Brookings Institution report this month. The concept and its implications take a bit of construction and deconstruction, but its long-term significance for 21st Century America could be as great as the effects that the turn-of-the-20th-Century immigrant influx, the creation of Social Security and the baby boom had on the 20th Century.

Between today and 2030, the 65-and-over population is expected to grow by about 30 percent per decade, nearly four times the rate of the overall population. At the same time, the country's under-15 population will expand by a mere 3 percent per decade. Although these projections are not as dramatic as those for Germany, Japan or Italy, America will become considerably greyer as the preschool-to-middle school set becomes a much smaller proportion of the population.

However — and this is the statistical nub of the "cultural generation gap" argument — the compositions of the two populations are starkly different. Eighty percent of Americans who are 65 and older — most of them retirees and the infirm — are white, but barely half of our population under 15 is white, according to Brookings' "State of Metropolitan America." Since 1990, children of immigrants have accounted for three-fourths of the nation's child population growth, and since 2000, the number of children of native-born Americans actually has declined by 1.2 million, according to Urban Institute data. A quarter of our 62 million children are now Hispanic, one-eighth are African-American, and one-twelfth are Asian and others. As the relative nonwhite child population increases, the changing composition of the playground is the bellwether of America's future.

Unless you want to shut down our borders, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, one of America's historic strengths has been its ability to assimilate new populations, and one of its potentially greatest strengths going forward is that, thanks to immigration, our population and labor force will grow faster than our leading competitors'.

But this "juxtaposition of its racially and ethnic diverse young population and its largely white older population," as Brookings scholars William Frey and Alan Berube put it, raises issues that are usually ignored in our immigration debates, our worries about long-run fiscal irresponsibility and our discussions of intergenerational solidarity or conflict.

Those who call for the worthy goals of intergenerational equity and not saddling future generations with tens of trillions of dollars of public debt and unfunded liabilities should not shy away from the racial/ethnic implications of their argument. The fact is, this amounts to a call for equity between mostly white, older Americans and increasingly brown and black younger Americans. That is an unsettling concept for some, but for the sake of honesty and clarity, it should be acknowledged and embraced.

At the same time, headlines and talking points about the nation falling behind two dozen other countries in math achievement and the need for educational reform rarely highlight the facts that disproportionate numbers of academically struggling children are people of color and that improving our educational system and outcomes largely means improving them for children of immigrants and other nonwhites. As Bruce Katz, vice president of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, warned: "If we don't upgrade the education and skills of our Hispanic and black populations, it's hard to imagine another century of prosperity in America."

This cultural generation gap can be either divisive — into antagonistic haves and have-nots divided by race and age — or a prod to make these demographic disparities turn into propositions that make all parties more secure and America stronger.

A first step is to be less cagey and more honest about whom we're discussing when we call for intergenerational equity, fiscal sustainability and improving education. The looming crises of Social Security and Medicare funding can be attenuated, but hardly solved, by supporting the growth of the nonwhite child population and improving their wealth-producing skill sets and knowledge base. As the United States moves toward a "majority minority" population within a few decades, we need to see debt reduction and fiscal sustainability as being as much about improving opportunities for immigrant and African-American kids as about avoiding macroeconomic calamity. The relatively bipartisan support for "investing in children," while trimming entitlement benefits for the elderly, must be seen as the steps for racial and ethnic inclusion that they are. We can't keep up the doubletalk of being pro-child and anti-immigrant.

Social cohesion, American-style, has always meant e pluribus unum — out of many, one. Thus, a critical dimension of social cohesion in the early 21st Century must be simultaneously intergenerational and inter-ethnic.

Andrew L. Yarrow, a Washington public-policy professional, modern U.S. historian and longtime journalist, is the author of "Forgive Us Our Debts" and the forthcoming book "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is ayarrow@publicagenda.org.

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