Future of America's baby boomers depends on our diverse youth
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The rising visibility of white supremacy and the failure of presidential leadership regarding it have brought the pervasive role of racism in politics and society into sharp focus. Some are calling for using this moment to take action to dismantle structural racism and build a fully inclusive society, work that will require large investments in the nation’s young people. But achieving this goal requires that we understand what could be standing in the way. In our rapidly diversifying society, how might the the intersection of age and race be preventing seniors from making the investments we need for today’s youth to become the productive workers of tomorrow?

Two years ago, 78 percent of America’s seniors were white while 49 percent of the nation’s youth were people of color. This “racial generation gap” varies across states. Arizona, with its fractious politics around immigration and ethnic studies in the schools, has the largest state-level divide: 83 percent of its seniors are white compared and 58 percent of its young people are of color. The national-level gap is also a sort of perfect explanation of the political divisions illustrated in the last election: an older and whiter group wondering what has become of “their” America, while a younger and more diverse America confronts the presidency left by the generations before them.

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Six in 10 white seniors voted for Trump, while less than two in 10 young blacks and Latinos did. Bridging these generational divides is key, and not just for the usual reasons of harmony and comity. According to a new analysis released this week by PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, the bigger the racial generation gap, the lower the level of state-level spending on K-12 education. In the past, elders have not shied away from supporting spending so that the next generation can thrive, but now they are.

 

Accounting for the other things that impact state spending on education, we found that each percentage point increase in a state’s racial generation gap corresponds to a 1.5 percent decrease in a state’s per-child K-12 spending. That may sound small, but the 6.8 percentage point difference in the racial generation gaps between Arizona and New Mexico likely accounts for more than a quarter of the $2,200 difference in per-child spending between these two states.

This leaves the fate of the next generation in the balance, but it’s not just them. Baby boomers are quickly becoming the largest elder generation in U.S. history. They will be increasingly reliant on the contributions of younger workers to the programs, like Medicare and Social Security, that will sustain them. And as much the elderly may want cling to what exists, that won’t work if we fail to invest in the next generation’s productivity.

After all, the youth of color who will power our future economy are disproportionately attending schools that lack the funding, resources and curriculums to prepare them to graduate, access higher education and succeed in the workforce. If we could instead close the achievement gap between native-born white children and black and Hispanic children, it is estimated that the U.S. economy would be nearly $2.3 trillion larger by 2050, for an average gain of $551 billion each year.

It’s a big gain for all of us, but the current administration seems headed in the opposite direction. The Trump administration plans to cut $9.2 billion in federal education funding from programs that impact student achievement, college affordability and workforce readiness, a move that will undoubtedly exacerbate racial disparities further.

What can we do instead? Sufficient and equitable school funding is needed to link all students to high-quality teachers, decent facilities, Advanced Placement courses and learning supports like English language programs. Unfortunately, most current funding systems rely on local sources, allowing wealthier districts to perpetuate their advantage over time.

Perhaps the hardest change involves building bridges between the nation’s diverse youth and predominantly white seniors. Aligning young people and seniors around shared policy goals, such as improving eldercare by ensuring the rising generation of home health care work are well paid, can help. But we also need to craft opportunities for people of different ages to live together and share public spaces.

The security and prosperity of the nation relies on the ability of all young people to reach their full potential. But they cannot get there alone: America’s seniors will need to see their own journeys, struggles and dreams in the rising generation of color and join the struggle for educational equity.

Angela Glover Blackwell is founder of PolicyLink, a racial and economic justice organization that does national advocacy and research.

Manuel Pastor is a  professor of sociology and director of the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.