A generation gap in several states between older whites and younger Latinos and African-Americans has race relations experts concerned that age differences in the population are influencing spending and public policy in areas such as education, transportation, immigration and infrastructure.
As the United States rapidly advances toward having a majority-minority population, whites continue to grow older, while –whites are increasingly younger. Evidence is mounting that what has been considered a racial divide in the country is also crystallizing into a generational divide.
Newly released U.S. Census data demonstrate a rapidly widening racial age gap. The median age for White Americans is 41 but is 32 for Blacks, 31.6 for Asians and 27 for Latinos. Across the country, 80 percent of senior citizens are white, while nearly half of the nation’s youth are of color. Such significant age disparities, some experts on race relations say, may be having far-reaching implications on resources invested in programs and areas benefiting younger generations.
Data show that states with a larger gap between median ages of whites and people of color tend to make fewer investments in social programs that once benefited older generations that were predominantly white, according to a new research project by PERE in conjunction with PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy organization based in Oakland, Calif.
In Arizona, the median age for Whites is 43 compared with 25 for Latinos, who comprise 31 percent of the state’s population. On per-pupil spending for education, census data show that Arizona ranks 49th among the states and the District of Columbia. In terms of spending on transportation, the state is in the bottom quarter of all states, according to Dominique Apollon, research director at the Applied Research Center, which has offices in New York, Chicago and Oakland.
To illustrate her point, Blackwell cites California and Mississippi. Through slavery and restrictive Jim Crow laws, she says, Mississippi consistently underinvested in the Black community. Today, Blackwell says, it consistently ranks on or near in the bottom in terms of education spending and has the nation’s infant mortality rate. Forty is the median age for whites in Mississippi, 29 for Blacks and 25 for Latinos, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
In California, public policy priorities have changed as the white population has aged. In the 1950s, when White families arrived from the Midwest in search of jobs, California built the nation’s best educational system. There were generous investments in the state’s infrastructure and programs to help families become homeowners. The state became a poster child for the benefits of public sector spending.
Today, California has a considerable age gap between White and nonwhite residents. The median age for Whites is 43, for Blacks 34 and for Latinos 27, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Furthermore, Blackwell says children of color comprise 70 percent of the state’s 18-and-under population while 60 percent of its over-65 population is white.
Beset with budget issues, California now hovers in the lower rungs of per-child spending on education, ranking 43rd nationally. It also ranks in the bottom quarter of all states in transportation funding, according to the Applied Research Center.
Questions have been raised about whether a relationship exists between racial age gaps and public sector spending. “I’m a little skeptical” about whether it is a national trend, Apollon says. Some state spending levels, he says, may be related to conservative philosophies toward government spending.
According to demographer William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, generation-gap states like Arizona tend to have “lightning rod issues” such as immigration and undocumented immigrants. Last year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed into law the nation’s strictest immigration legislation, which made failure to carry immigration documents a crime.
The law also gave police wide latitude in detaining anyone they suspected of being an illegal immigrant. A federal judge later imposed an injunction on many of the law’s provisions. The state also banned Chicano studies programs in its public schools.
Frey says antipathy toward immigrants is a generational trend, noting the hostility toward Italian and Polish immigrants 100 years ago. Immigration slowed between the 1930s and 1970s, and not until the 1990s did Latin American immigration begin surging. Rapidly changing demographics unnerve many people, he says, adding that baby boomers had not witnessed the immigration wave of the early 1900s.
“What bothers me is politicians use this as a wedge issue,” Frey says, “rather than explaining this (wave of immigration) is part of our history.”
Meanwhile, other people see the disinclination to invest in younger generations as a matter of economics and self-interest. “I personally think it’s class that’s the issue, not ethnicity,” says Joel Kotkin, author of “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.”