"Where the old don't see themselves reflected in the young, there's less investment in the future," says Manuel Pastor, a professor of geography and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) and co-directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
"Our racial divide has become a generational divide," Pastor says. "There's this image of an older generation drawing up the drawbridge just as the younger generation is coming of age in America."
More important, data show that states with a larger gap between median ages of whites and people of color tend to make fewer investments in social programs that once benefited older generations that were predominantly white, according to a new research project by PERE in conjunction with PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy organization based in Oakland, Calif.
For instance, Pastor says states with significant age gaps between white and nonwhite populations tend to spend the least on education and public transportation.
In Arizona, the median age for whites is 43 compared with 25 for Latinos, who comprise 31 percent of the state's population. On per-pupil spending for education, census data show that Arizona ranks 49th among the states and the District of Columbia. In terms of spending on transportation, the state is in the bottom quarter of all states, according to Dominique Apollon, research director at the Applied Research Center, which has offices in New York, Chicago and Oakland.
"States that have the biggest age divide like Arizona really become ground zero for the racial generation gap," says Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink. "Places that don't invest in the future will not be competitive in the future."
To illustrate her point, Blackwell cites California and Mississippi. Through slavery and restrictive Jim Crow laws, she says, Mississippi consistently underinvested in the black community. Today, Blackwell says, it consistently ranks on or near in the bottom in terms of education spending and has the nation's infant mortality rate. Forty is the median age for whites in Mississippi, 29 for blacks and 25 for Latinos, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
In California, public policy priorities have changed as the white population has aged. In the 1950s, when white families arrived from the Midwest in search of jobs, California built the nation's best educational system. There were generous investments in the state's infrastructure and programs to help families become homeowners. The state became a poster child for the benefits of public sector spending.
Today, California has a considerable age gap between white and nonwhite residents. The median age for whites is 43, for blacks 34 and for Latinos 27, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Furthermore, Blackwell says children of color comprise 70 percent of the state's 18-and-under population while 60 percent of its over-65 population is white.
Beset with budget issues, California now hovers in the lower rungs of per-child spending on education, ranking 43rd nationally. It also ranks in the bottom quarter of all states in transportation funding, according to the Applied Research Center.
"You're starting to see the same approach that held back states like Mississippi holding back states like California," Blackwell says. "California is the harbinger. Mississippi should have been the lesson."
Still, questions have been raised about whether a relationship exists between racial age gaps and public sector spending. "I'm a little skeptical" about whether it is a national trend, Apollon says. Some state spending levels, he says, may be related to conservative philosophies toward government spending.
Still, Apollon says, "there is certainly a fear of the changing demographic amongst a small minority of the country, and that minority tends to be whites and it tends to be slightly older."
According to demographer William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, generation-gap states like Arizona tend to have "lightning rod issues" such as immigration and undocumented immigrants. Last year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed into law the nation's strictest immigration legislation, which made failure to carry immigration documents a crime.
The law also gave police wide latitude in detaining anyone they suspected of being an illegal immigrant. A federal judge later imposed an injunction on many of the law's provisions. The state also banned Chicano studies programs in its public schools.
Frey says antipathy toward immigrants is a generational trend, noting the hostility toward Italian and Polish immigrants 100 years ago. Immigration slowed between the 1930s and 1970s, and not until the 1990s did Latin American immigration begin surging. Rapidly changing demographics unnerve many people, he says, adding that baby boomers had not witnessed the immigration wave of the early 1900s.
"What bothers me is politicians use this as a wedge issue," Frey says, "rather than explaining this [wave of immigration] is part of our history."
Meanwhile, other people see the disinclination to invest in younger generations as a matter of economics and self-interest. "I personally think it's class that's the issue, not ethnicity," says Joel Kotkin, author of "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050." As older generations age out of the workforce, Kotkin says, they are much less concerned about opportunities for the next generation, regardless of race.
The state of the economy is also having an impact on social spending. "When the economy goes bad, people get scared," says Michael R. Wenger, senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "All of us get scared unless we're Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. . . . We want to spend less because we don't know what's happening. That kind of fear means that people don't want to be their brother's keeper. They are fearful for their own future, and that comes first."
Anxiety about the future is coupling with unease about the nation's rapidly changing demographics to affect public policy. "This country has always been seen by white people as a white country," Wenger says. "So a number of people see that slipping away, so their sense of control is slipping away. "
But Pastor says such fear becomes counterproductive.
"It's not just kids of color that are hurt when you don't invest in education," he says. "It's young white families that are afraid to move back to the cities because of the schools. We're really damaging a whole generation of possibilities."