Policy, Politics and Population: Lawmakers Can Track Trends and Gain Valuable Insight from the Census

By Smith, Edward P. | State Legislatures, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Policy, Politics and Population: Lawmakers Can Track Trends and Gain Valuable Insight from the Census


Smith, Edward P., State Legislatures


Aging baby boomers heading for retirement, a growing Latino population, swelling ranks of the poor, and a steady flight to cities and suburbs from rural areas all are trends evident from the 2010 census that will have political and policy implications for state lawmakers.

Some are obvious. Both political parties have been concerned for years about attracting the growing ranks of Latino voters. Others may not be so obvious, such as how the burgeoning numbers of older voters will respond to cutbacks in public spending.

And there are policy implications, some of which are still coming into focus as lawmakers digest the 2010 numbers and consider how they may affect their state.

Older Boomers

An aging population means an aging state workforce. That translates into a growing demand on state pension funds; more workers retiring, many of whom may be supervisors; and a need to recruit top-notch younger workers to take their places.

As well, public employees are, on average, older than the general population, and many have the opportunity to retire with pensions by age 60 or 65. This varies widely from state to state. California, for example, reported in March 2011 that 23 percent of the permanent civil service workforce was 55 or older, and another 17 percent was between 50 and 55. In New York, officials say by 2015, 44.5 percent of current state employees will be 55 or older. Even in Utah, the state with the youngest median age, 21 percent of state workers were 55 or older in 2010.

Older workers may be inclined to stay on the job a few more years if national trends hold true. People over 65 who were still working hit a low point at 12 percent in 1998, but now it's above 16 percent.

There are other reasons, however, that an aging population can put a strain on states. Medicaid, the joint state-federal health plan, costs nearly $400 billion a year; 67 percent of that money goes to provide long-term care for the severely disabled and the elderly. Buried in the census data is this germane piece of information: Those age 80 and over represent 10 percent of the older population and will more than triple from 5.7 million in 2010 to more than 19 million by 2050. These are the folks most likely to end up receiving help from Medicaid for longterm care.

Children

The census found there was a decline of 4.3 million Anglo children over the past 10 years. Those under age 18 grew only 2.6 percent over the decade, and declined in 23 states. In the 27 states that gained children, almost all the increase was among minorities, especially Latinos. The most remarkable demonstration of that may be in Texas, which gained nearly 1 million children; Latinos accounted for 95 percent of the gain.

A growing number of those Latino children are living in poverty. There are 6.1 million poor Latino children in the nation today, compared with 5 million Anglo children and 4.4 million African-American children living in poverty, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The data have policy implications, including what sort of programs to support for new parents and preschool children. Research indicates preschool programs are particularly helpful for children from lower-income households who may be at risk for doing poorly in school. They also are at greater risk of mental health problems and illnesses such as asthma, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.

Some believe states need to support programs for parents, such as home visiting and participation in child care and preschool classrooms. Such programs may help address the achievement gap and prepare these young learners for school and a strong academic future.

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Poverty

The Census Bureau reports an additional 2.6 million people slipped into poverty last year, bringing the number of Americans living below the official poverty line to 46.2 million, or 15. …

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