ATLANTA — The divergent views of the George Zimmerman trial for the death of Trayvon Martin illustrate how profound demographic differences can be, but the implications go beyond pop culture to impact all levels of government.
In that case, surveys show that black Americans viewed Zimmerman as guilty of committing a racially motivated murder, but other ethnic groups accepted the jury’s acquittal. The split illustrates how public issues are swayed by demographics.
That’s the message state policymakers got last week during a convention of the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Atlanta. Much has been written and said since November’s election about how demographic trends affect politics with a growing minority voter base fueling Democrats, but the policy repercussions have gotten less attention.
For example, an obvious trend is the expanded prevalence of Hispanics who make up 92 percent of the country’s overall population growth since 2000. Less obvious is that they are 74 percent of the labor force growth between 2010 and 2020, and they’ll account for 90 percent between 2010 and 2050, according to projections by the Pew Research Center.
“The picture of the workforce is changing pretty dramatically,” said Paul Taylor, director of Pew’s Social & Demographic Trends Project.
A trend with challenging policy considerations is in social-services funding. In 1960, about one in three senior citizens lived in poverty, and today just about one in 10 do while childhood poverty rates are almost exactly the opposite. That’s because programs like Medicare and Social Security now means the government spends $6.66 on senior citizens for every dollar it spends on children.
“There has been a dramatic shift in priorities and a dramatic shift in economic wellbeing,” he said. “... This is the great political and policy challenge we face.”
Yet, every day, another 10,000 Baby Boomers reach age 65, pushing the proportion of seniors in the general population from 12 percent today to 19 percent by 2050, according to Pew’s estimates.
And yet, those retirees are already nervous about their financial prospects. Roger Ferguson, CEO of the investment company TIAA-CREF, told the legislators that half of all workers say they and their spouse have less than $25,000 in savings.
“The upshot is that there are fewer and fewer people working, and they are supporting more and more people who are retired and not working - a recipe for big fiscal challenges everywhere,” he said. “In the U.S., the major impact will be on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - programs that already account for roughly 40 percent of all federal spending and 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.”
Another trend impacting society is the rise in single mothers heading households. Two of every five households have a woman as the primary breadwinner, many still in their childbearing years.
Young adults are delaying marriage because they don’t have jobs or their pay isn’t adequate, Taylor said.
Policymakers are trying to boost incomes by helping working adults complete their education through returning to college or technical school to get degrees that were never finished, notes Dustin Weeden, policy analyst for the conference of legislatures.
“States are really trying to reach out and target that population,” he said.
It’s not as if there are no jobs available. Jobs requiring specialized skills or technical-school certificates go unfilled because few people are qualified.
“When you look at workforce projections, it’s that middle skills group that’s growing most,” he said.
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