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Policy Summit Tackles Changing U.S. Demographics

WASHINGTON – The United States is a country whose youth population is browning while its White population is heavily concentrated in older age brackets. According to recent census data, 35 percent of the U.S. population is non-White. And while discussing the enormous demographic shift that the country is experiencing, people often refer to the year 2042 when the U.S. will be a majority-minority country. In essence, much of that change is already here.

As Ronald Brownstein, veteran journalist and political director of National Journal Group media company, pointed out Thursday during a National Journal policy summit on demographics and the workforce of the future, currently 65 percent of the population is White, compared to 70 percent in 2000 and 80 percent in 1980. The changes are even more profound among younger age cohorts. Generation Y, aged 30 and under, is two-fifths non-White, as is 45 percent of the population under 18. In addition, minority children comprised 49 percent of births in the past year, noted Brownstein, who moderated the policy summit.

These changing demographics will greatly impact American life overall, but even more so African-Americans and Hispanics who will make up much of the future workforce. Will they be ready?

The current reality is that Black and Hispanic children in the U.S. lag far behind their White and Asian counterparts in school, and their high school graduation rates are much lower.

A member of the expert panel at the National Journal summit, Amy Wilkins, vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust organization, said that considerable progress has been made at the elementary school level and that the achievement gaps between minority and White children are smaller than they have ever been.

“On the other end, we have an enormous problem. College going and college graduation gaps between Whites and kids of color are bigger than they’ve ever been when the premium on getting a degree is higher than it’s ever been,” she noted, adding that there must be greater focus on getting minority students to and through college.

Getting there, however, Wilkins said, will require a major cultural shift. Currently, higher education institutions determine how elite or successful they are based on how many students don’t get in. Instead, Wilkins argued, their success should be based on how many students they’re actually graduating.

Wilkins also said that educators from higher education to K-12 to preschool point fingers at each other when confronted with this issue when in fact they all need to take more responsibility for closing achievement and other gaps and be held accountable.

Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant for education in the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that the nation’s entire public education system needs to be retooled with the aim of ensuring that all students, no matter their race, graduate from high school, post-high-school training, or college and are career ready. Such an effort requires higher standards and expectations and what he called a new generation of assessment and accountability measures to drive standards-based reform.

Rodriguez said more than 2,000 high schools and their feeder schools produce more than half of America’s school dropouts.

“We’re looking at some of the demographic data on dropouts, and it’s a particular problem for our communities of color, so we’re really looking at leveraging a national strategy to spur transformation in those schools,” he said.

Rodriguez also said that early childhood education is an area that too often is neglected even though it provides a 15 to 17 percent return on investment.

“We know we have 11 million children spending some amount of time outside their homes, and the quality of those environments really need to be strengthened,” Rodriguez said. “We need to raise the bar there. We have a school readiness gap that’s at 60 points, and we’re playing catch-up in K-12 education.”

Brownstein observed that, although over decades the education debate has focused on equitability in terms of resources and opportunities, the demographic shifts taking place are increasingly raising a new discussion on how well the nation will be able to compete in a global marketplace.

Meanwhile, businesses are watching—and getting nervous.

“They’re looking down the pipeline to see where they’re going to get their workforce, the skills that those individuals are going to have, and what their success rate is going to be in postsecondary education,” said Karen Elzey, vice president and executive director of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Businesses want to see policies in place that will ensure the future workforce is well-trained and educated. But, she warned, if they can’t find that workforce here, “they’ll go where they can find it” by hiring immigrants or going overseas.

Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the progressive think tank NDN, believes that the nation has to find a way to make the necessary financial investment so they’re prepared for what will be a more competitive world and accept that it will likely have to shift some of the investment now going to an older, predominantly White population to a younger, more diverse one. 

The challenge over the next few years, during a period of potential austerity, he said, will be developing policies “to make sure that we’re funding to the future and not to the past. This is a titanic battle on federal and state levels.”

But. as Brownstein pointed out, there’s a converging mutual interest that hasn’t been articulated in this debate before: seniors should want to help younger generations acquire the skills they’ll need in order to pay the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare.

Click here to view a webcast of the entire forum.

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