Brown, Gray, and Urban

Cities are where America will—or won’t—find common ground between the two giant generations reshaping the nation.

Immigrants await examination at Ellis Island.
National Journal
April 24, 2015, 1 a.m.

Cit­ies have al­ways been Amer­ica’s cru­cibles of change. When mil­lions of European im­mig­rants re­cast the na­tion’s iden­tity dur­ing the Melt­ing Pot era a cen­tury ago, they landed and lived mostly in cit­ies. Today, the United States is liv­ing through the most pro­found demo­graph­ic change since that time—and cit­ies again rep­res­ent the front line.

In our era, the United States is ex­per­i­en­cing two demo­graph­ic trans­itions: It is grow­ing more di­verse, es­pe­cially in its youth pop­u­la­tion, and it is also aging, as the pre­dom­in­antly white baby boomers move to­ward re­tire­ment. A com­pel­ling re­port re­leased Fri­day from the Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia’s Pro­gram for En­vir­on­ment­al and Re­gion­al Equity (PERE), Talk­ing ‘Bout Our Gen­er­a­tions, un­der­scores that it is mostly in met­ro­pol­it­an areas where these two gen­er­a­tions will find com­mon ground—or not. (The USC re­port was fun­ded by the Gen­er­a­tions Ini­ti­at­ive, a phil­an­throp­ic ef­fort that has also sup­por­ted Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Next Amer­ica pro­ject.)

+ Im­mig­rants await ex­am­in­a­tion at El­lis Is­land. (Lib­rary of Con­gress)The twin demo­graph­ic trans­itions are widen­ing what ana­lysts call a “cul­tur­al gen­er­a­tion gap” between the di­ver­si­fy­ing youth pop­u­la­tion (the Census Bur­eau pro­jects that minor­it­ies will be­come a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ica’s un­der-18 pop­u­la­tion in this dec­ade) and a seni­or pop­u­la­tion that re­mains about 80 per­cent white. These two gi­ant blocks—what I’ve called “the brown and the gray”—have be­come the com­pet­ing poles of Amer­ic­an polit­ics, with Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing young­er minor­it­ies sup­port­ing in­creased pub­lic spend­ing, par­tic­u­larly in areas such as edu­ca­tion and health care, and older whites, who are in­creas­ingly Re­pub­lic­an, mostly res­ist­ing it.

That con­trast is es­pe­cially vis­ible in and around cit­ies. As the re­port doc­u­ments, minor­it­ies already make up the ma­jor­ity of young people in 53 of the na­tion’s 150 largest met­ro­pol­it­an areas, and at least 40 per­cent in 26 more. (Young people of col­or are es­pe­cially dom­in­ant in the biggest cit­ies.) Mean­while, whites con­sti­tute a ma­jor­ity of seni­ors in all but four of the largest metro areas and at least three-fifths of seni­ors in all but 12.

Though their polit­ics have di­verged, the des­tinies of these two gi­ant gen­er­a­tions re­main in­ter­twined. Sev­er­al stud­ies pro­ject that minor­it­ies will provide all of the na­tion’s net new work­ers through 2030. And as the over­all pop­u­la­tion ages, those work­ers must shoulder the taxes that fund So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care for a swell­ing num­ber of (mostly white) re­tir­ees, notes PERE dir­ect­or Manuel Pas­tor, who coau­thored the study. “We are cre­at­ing a group of adults that [will] need to be far more pro­duct­ive “¦ to sup­port a lar­ger share of re­tired adults,” he says. “That means we need people to get a bet­ter start in life and to have a much sharp­er tra­ject­ory to high­er earn­ings, be­cause they will be sup­port­ing more people with their taxes.”

In­stead, the op­pos­ite is hap­pen­ing. In 1979, house­holds headed by someone between 25 and 34 had a me­di­an in­come only 2 per­cent lower than house­holds led by those between 55 and 64. Now the young­er house­holds earn fully 18 per­cent less than the older ones; in in­fla­tion-ad­jus­ted dol­lars, young­er house­holds are worse off than in 1979. The fin­an­cial crash’s long af­ter­math partly ex­plains that de­teri­or­a­tion. But it also re­flects the con­tinu­ing short­fall in earn­ings and edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment among the young minor­it­ies who rep­res­ent a grow­ing por­tion of the young­er pop­u­la­tion.

While Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic edu­ca­tion levels are im­prov­ing, the share of adults in both groups with four-year col­lege de­grees still lags far be­hind whites in all ma­jor cit­ies. That erodes their abil­ity to com­pete for jobs even in the cit­ies most ef­fect­ively gen­er­at­ing them. In an es­pe­cially com­pel­ling ana­lys­is, the re­port shows that fast-growth cit­ies are re­ly­ing more on im­port­ing well-edu­cated work­ers from else­where than on edu­cat­ing their own res­id­ents. In all ten cit­ies that have cre­ated the most jobs since 2000, the share of adults with col­lege de­grees born in the same state lags be­hind—of­ten well be­hind—the share of col­lege-edu­cated adults who have come from else­where in the United States.

This pat­tern can’t per­sist in­def­in­itely, be­cause most of Amer­ica’s kids are be­ing born in fast-growth cit­ies, and most of them are non­white: Even­tu­ally there won’t be enough (mostly white) young col­lege gradu­ates to lure from else­where. That means cit­ies will need to equip more of their own kids. To achieve that, the re­port ar­gues, cit­ies must in­vest more in en­han­cing pro­spects for low-in­come kids through everything from ex­pan­ded preschool to im­proved trans­port­a­tion op­tions. As a first step to­ward ac­tion, the au­thors praise ini­ti­at­ives in places like Seattle, Min­neapol­is, and Char­lotte to chart loc­al dis­par­it­ies and spur con­ver­sa­tions about clos­ing them.

The para­dox fa­cing cit­ies is that the eco­nom­ic in­equal­it­ies threat­en­ing them are rooted in na­tion­al and in­ter­na­tion­al forces (like glob­al com­pet­i­tion) mostly bey­ond their con­trol. Yet, as Pas­tor notes, the con­sequences of those trends are most vis­ible loc­ally, which makes it easi­er “for people to re­cog­nize their com­mon des­tiny.” That aware­ness has spurred a surge of loc­al ini­ti­at­ives aimed at eco­nom­ic in­clu­sion, like the push to raise mu­ni­cip­al min­im­um-wage levels. But the United States isn’t likely to pro­duce broadly shared growth un­til both our na­tion­al and loc­al policies re­cog­nize that there is no eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity for the gray without eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity for the brown.

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