The contrast and conflict between these kaleidoscopically diverse younger generations and preponderantly white older ones—groups I’ve called the brown and the gray—has emerged as one of the central fault lines in American life. Though hurt by disappointing turnout, Hillary Clinton last year won overwhelming majorities among younger minority voters. Trump, meanwhile, carried over three-fifths of whites older than age 45, and they provided a majority of his votes.
The new study quantifies another implication of what the authors call the “racial generation gap,” a concept initially developed by demographer William Frey. Analyzing state spending trends, they found that since 1990, states and counties with the biggest gaps between mostly white seniors and mostly non-white kids “tend to spend less” on K-12 public education on a per capita basis. (PolicyLink and PERE have partnered with The Atlantic on similar data projects.)
Many of the states with the widest racial generation gaps spend the least per person on public education—a list that includes Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, California, and Florida. Conversely, many states that are more racially homogeneous, from Vermont, Connecticut, and New Hampshire to West Virginia, Wyoming, and North Dakota, spend more.
As the authors note, the resistance by so many older whites to invest in future generations is extraordinarily short-sighted. One of the central dynamics of 21st century America is that an increasingly non-white workforce will be paying the taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare for a growing and mostly white retiree population. Older white America needs more of the diverse younger generations to obtain the skills to reach the middle class—not (primarily) on the grounds of fairness or equity, but out of self-interest. As I’ve written before, there is no financial security for the gray without economic opportunity for the brown.
Trump has implicitly mobilized his coalition, centered on older and working-class whites, around the opposite argument: that diverse younger generations can only rise at their expense. Not only does his agenda on crime and immigration precisely target white anxieties, but he tilts starkly toward the gray in his budget proposals. He would hold harmless Social Security and Medicare, which benefit mostly white seniors, while slashing domestic-discretionary programs that invest in the productivity of the highly diverse rising generations. “If that isn’t playing to the racial generation gap, I don’t know what is,” said Manuel Pastor, the PERE director.
Still, even as racial tension brews under Trump, Pastor finds a key reason for optimism. Since the 1990s, the racial generation gap has rapidly widened as the minority share of the youth population has exploded, up from 34 percent in 1995 to 48 percent in 2013. That share has grown much more slowly among seniors, rising only from 16 percent to 21 percent in that same period. But looking forward, the Census Bureau projects that minorities will increase their share of the youth population somewhat more slowly and steadily age into a growing portion of the elderly. The result, as the study observes, is that the racial generation gap already likely peaked around 2013, and will decline, albeit slowly, in years ahead.