Demography Is Destiny

July 22, 2010

The National Journal
Saturday, June 26, 2010
by Ronald Brownstein

As Washington focuses on the upcoming elections, National Journal took a step back this month to look at the big-picture demographic shifts remaking the face of the United States and at their political and policy implications. Atlantic Media Political Director Ronald Brownstein sat down with former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William Frey, White House Education Adviser Roberto Rodriguez, NDN President Simon Rosenberg, Education Trust Vice President Amy Wilkins, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President Karen Elzey to talk about the implications of an American population that is growing older and more diverse.

NJ: We know that K-12 education is not producing outcomes for African-Americans and Hispanics that are comparable to those for whites. We have been talking about and debating this problem for many years. Why has it proved so difficult to resolve?

Wilkins: I think we have a good-news, bad-news story here. To start with the good news, what we know is that in elementary school we're making a lot of progress. The achievement gaps that separate children of color from white children are smaller than they've ever been. So I think that shows that these kids indeed can learn.

On the other end, the college-going gaps and the college-graduation gaps between whites and kids of color are bigger than they've ever been. And that's at a time when the premium on a college education is higher than it has ever been and at a time when our country is getting to be majority-minority. When you talk to people in higher education about why kids of color are having such a hard time, they point at K-12. When you ask K-12 people why kids of color are having such a hard time, they point at pre-K, at families, at communities. Part of what needs to happen is, our institutions of education have to begin to take responsibility.

NJ: These debates have usually been framed in terms of equity: ensuring that African-American and Hispanic children have the same opportunity as a white child in the suburbs. Is this moving from an equity issue to a competitiveness issue, in terms of America's ability to compete?

Elzey: I think, from a business perspective, from our business members, that it's a combination of the two: It's an equity issue but it's clearly [also] a competitiveness issue. They're looking down the pipeline to see where they're going to get their workforce, the skills those individuals are going to have, what their success rate is going to be in postsecondary education; and they're very concerned because they do see the changing demographics. So the question is, what role can they play in terms of being able to support effective policies and the necessary changes that are going to find their workforce here? If they can't find the workforce here, they'll go where they can get it.

NJ: And that means, what, immigration?

Elzey: That means immigration, that means overseas, that means international competition.

Davis: Look at where American money is going today. It's going to Medicare, Medicaid; 82 percent of Medicaid spending in Virginia is basically seniors in hospital beds. It's going to Social Security, and that's over 60 percent of the budget. We're investing in the past, basically, and not in the future, which is education, R&D, infrastructure. We're General Motors when you take a look at where the investments in this country are today. How do you compete globally with that?

Rosenberg: I think that the tragedy of this is that in our current global economy, our companies, our workers, and our kids are going to be facing a much more competitive world than we faced in the 20th century. We have to give our workers and our kids more than what we had.

The current administration froze domestic discretionary spending but didn't attack entitlements and defense spending, which would arguably be the inverse of what you would do [based on Davis's analysis.] So I think the challenge for us in the next few years is creating a politics of investment during a time of potential austerity to make sure that, in the future, we're funding toward the future and not toward the past. This is going to be a titanic battle at the federal level and, I think, at the state level as well.

Davis: Let me take that one step further -- we're investing in the past, and it's going to be older white people who are going to be getting the money, for the most part, through these entitlement programs. And the younger minorities are not getting it. So it creates an interesting political dynamic -- older, whiter voters -- Republicans -- calling for cutting entitlements, cutting their base; Democrats refusing to cut entitlements, hurting their base. When you look at it, it may not make sense, and over the long term it may shift.

NJ: Anybody looking at the trajectory is saying that money is going to be tight for a number of years. That raises the question of how do we impose greater accountability on educational institutions for the money we have.

Rodriguez: We do need to ensure that we're pursuing the right types of policies that in the long run will enable us to do more with less. We're really looking at what we can do to infuse a new growth model in accountability. We're concentrating on teacher reforms. We're doing more to intervene in our consistently low-performing schools. And then as we move into higher education, we've been focused on doing more to ensure that we're increasing access. So that's going to require looking at college completion as a state-level imperative, as an institutional-level imperative.

NJ: Ms. Wilkins, your group has spent a lot of time focusing on this college-completion issue. How do you grade the administration's effort so far?

Wilkins: We give them an A for putting the issue on the agenda. There's a lot to be done still. It requires a huge culture shift to make college completion a big deal in this country, because right now the eliteness of a college is sort of about how many kids don't get through. To shift that culture and say that we're going to judge colleges based not on the SAT scores of the kids they bring in but on their success in getting all kids through, that's a huge culture shift.

NJ: If you look at the increase in the share of young people who are going to be nonwhite, Hispanic, and African-American, if we don't increase their college completion, is the overall college-completion rate in the U.S. going to go down rather than up?

Frey: Yes, very sharply in the next 10 or 15 years, we'll be able to see that just dip downward. That's absolutely the case.

NJ: As a nation, are we mostly embracing this demographic change, or do you see it more as a source of tension?

Davis: It's both. I think, over time, we embrace it -- that's always been our culture, and there have always been tensions as we've adapted to new groups coming into this country. We do know, politically, a couple of things: No. 1, the Hispanic influx that has come in, they are not, for the most part, participants in the political process, at least nowhere near [in proportion to] their numbers. So the ramifications and the opportunities for polarization there are probably greater until they make their numbers known.

Even in the Republican Party... you have two Hispanic candidates for governor in New Mexico and Nevada who have excellent chances of winning. I think some of this stuff will work itself out, but it will take some time.

Rosenberg: I think immigration is a very complicated issue. Certainly, this issue of how we are changing is a core part of this. And to deny that, I think, would be ignorant of what's really going on on the ground, in these states. [But] a lot of what's also driving the debate now is a sense that the government and business have been irresponsible in the way they've allowed the system to get so out of control.

If you look at the polling data on immigration reform for the last five years, somewhere between 55 and 65 percent of Americans in virtually every poll have said that we should let the undocumented stay under certain conditions, which is usually 'Go to the back of the line, pay a fine, do a background check, learn English' -- all this. What it says to me is that essentially the country has come to accept the racial transformation that's going on. It may not be happy about it, but it's accepting it.

Research Associate Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.