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“The Gray and the Brown: The Generational Mismatch”

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July 23, 2010 07:17 pm

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National Journal - jul 23 2010In a National Journal cover story, Ronald Brownstein writes about “two of the biggest demographic trends reshaping the nation in the 21st century”–the nonwhite population of young people and the overwhelmingly white older generation, or, as he calls them, the gray and the brown.

He notes that children of color now make up more than two-fifths of all children under 18 and will represent a majority of all American children as soon as 2023. Meanwhile, whites will still makeup nearly two-thirds of seniors by 2040.

Brownstein writes about the “contrast in needs, attitudes, and priorities” arising between these two groups and, while comparing them to tectonic plates, notes the possibility that these two “slow-moving, but irreversible forces may generate enormous turbulence as they grind against each other in the years ahead.”

But he also points out that these two groups may have more in common with each other than they realize:

Today’s minority students will represent an increasing share of tomorrow’s workforce and thus pay more of the payroll taxes that will be required to fund Social Security and Medicare benefits for the mostly white Baby Boomers. Many analysts warn that if the U.S. doesn’t improve educational performance among African-American and Hispanic children, who now lag badly behind whites in both high school and college graduation rates, the nation will have difficulty producing enough high-paying jobs to generate the tax revenue to maintain a robust retirement safety net.

Brownstein quotes Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University, who says that this ethnic transformation “could be the greatest asset this county will have, with a young multilingual, well-educated workforce. Or it could tear us apart and become a major liability.” More Klineberg: “Will the Baby Boomers recognize that they have a responsibility and a personal stake in ensuring that this next generation of largely Latino and African-American kids are prepared to succeed?”

According to a recent poll by the Alliance for Excellent Education, large percentages of American voters understand this question.

When asked whether they were concerned that 30 percent of students nationwide, and as many as half of African-American and Latino students, fail to graduate from high school with their peers, 79 percent of respondents said they were “extremely” or “very” concerned. Americans also understand that high dropout rates have a bit impact on the nation’s economy, with 69 percent saying that it affects the U.S. economy a lot.

An Alliance report released earlier this month found that cutting the dropout rate in half among students of color would likely produce vast economic benefits by boosting the spending power of these communities of color and spurring job and economic growth in these regions.

It found that students of color made up a sizeable portion of the estimated 600,000 students who dropped out from the Class of 2008 in the nation’s forty-five largest metropolitan areas. Of these students, approximately 113,600 were African American, 200,000 were Latino, 30,800 were Asian American and 3,750 were American Indian. Turning half of these dropouts into “new graduates” would add the following contributions to the nation’s economy:

* increased earnings of $2.3 billion in an average year;
* increased home sales of an additional $5.9 billion in mortgage capacity over what they would spend without a diploma;
* an additional 17,450 jobs from the increased spending in their local areas;
* an increase in the gross regional product by as much as $3.1 billion;
* an additional $1.6 billion spent and an additional $636.6 million invested each year;
* an additional $158.6 million spent on vehicle purchases; and
* increased tax revenues of $249.7 million.

Finally, you can learn more about how changing demographics can affect economic future of the nation in the Alliance’s report Dropouts, Diplomas, and Dollars: U.S. High Schools and the Nation’s Economy. The section on demographic changes is entitled, “Globalization Increases the Challenge” and begins on page 23 of the report.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.