Expanding age gap may increase U.S. racial divide
Teresa Wiltz | 11/29/2011, 6:21 p.m.
WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
“Where the old don’t see themselves reflected in the young, there’s less investment in the future,” says Manuel Pastor, a professor of geography and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) and co-directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
“Our racial divide has become a generational divide,” Pastor says. “There’s this image of an older generation drawing up the drawbridge just as the younger generation is coming of age in America.”
More important, 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.
For instance, Pastor says states with significant age gaps between white and nonwhite populations tend to spend the least on education and public transportation.
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.
“States that have the biggest age divide like Arizona really become ground zero for the racial generation gap,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink. “Places that don’t invest in the future will not be competitive in the future.”
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 highest 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.