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[Marifeli Perez-Stable] Education is the key to success

Is the United States in decline? Twenty-five years ago Americans feared Japan would make us No. 2, but then in the 1990s our economy boomed and Japan’s stagnated. Now the fears have returned.

China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies are roaring ahead. China, our closest competitor, holds more than 20 percent of the $4.3 billion in U.S. Treasury securities purchased by foreigners.

Deficit reduction, strategic investments (yes, spending), and comprehensive tax reform are not either/or propositions. All ― and then some ― are needed. Yet, when the White House’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform issued its sobering, sensible report, no one but a majority of its members embraced its recommendations.

Last December, the U.S. Census Bureau released the population count as of April 1, 2010. Since 1790, the decennial census has been the basis for the reapportionment of congressional seats and, thus, a linchpin of our democracy. States that gained seats, such as Texas and Florida, have largely grown thanks to Hispanics. Latinos also helped to stem losses in states like New York and New Jersey. That much we already knew.

What’s striking, though hardly surprising, is the most recent data: since 2000, racial minorities accounted for 85 percent of our population growth. Latinos alone constituted 40 percent of the increase among 18-and-older adults; altogether minorities represented 70 percent. That’s the story regarding today’s electorate.

But it’s 3-year-olds that should give us all pause as we confront the nation’s fiscal straits: For the first time, minorities constitute 50.1 percent of this cohort. Whites still hold a slight majority among 4-year-olds with higher shares in the older age groups. All the same, Census Bureau estimates point to a decline in white children nationally and in some 40 states. About 50 percent of the states will likely register gains in their child populations, most or all coming from minorities.

Declining fertility among whites and rising minority births explain these trends. Hispanic population growth is especially sensitive due to the rage over immigration. Yet, children born in the United States account for most of the Latino growth. Under current immigration patterns, by 2023, a majority of American children would be from racial minorities. Should immigration slow down considerably, that threshold wouldn’t be crossed until 2050. Let’s strike a middle ground and say that by the 2030s minority kids may well be a majority of our children.

Compared to non-Hispanic whites, minorities have lower rates of K-through-12 enrollment and drop out of school at higher rates. Even if high school graduates, minority students tend to underperform academically vis-a-vis non-Hispanic whites.

We don’t need a weatherman to know which way these winds are blowing. Unless we do better ― substantially better ― at educating our children, the United States will decline.

We are already living in the midst of a “cultural generation gap.” William Frey at the Brookings Institution coined the phrase to depict the tensions created by large gaps between the white percentages among under-18 population and the 65-and-over group.

In Arizona, for example, whites comprise 43 percent of all children but a whopping 83 percent of all seniors, a 40-point breach that is the nation’s highest. Nevada, California, Texas, New Mexico and Florida follow with gaps ranging from 34 to 29. Given demographic trends, large cultural generational gaps will spread to other states.

If we lower corporate tax rates, our exports would be more competitive and more American jobs would be created. Sensible spending cuts and targeted tax increases would rein in our deficits and help us avert a crisis in the bond market. Even under this rosy scenario, however, only if we build upon our singular strength ― our human capital, the creativity, entrepreneurship and generosity of our people ― would we pass on the venerable American dream to the next generations.

If we meet these challenges, we will have cast an even wider net around E pluribus unum. Our founders certainly wouldn’t recognize our pluribus but they could still marvel at the American people’s energies and at how well their experiment had held up in spite of it all.

By Marifeli Perez-Stable

Marifeli Perez-Stable (www.marifeliperezstable.com) is senior non-resident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, a professor at Florida International University and a columnist for the Miami Herald. ― Ed.

(McClatchy Newspapers)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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