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Ange-Marie Hancock Headshot
Manuel Pastor Headshot

House Republicans Bury Their Heads in the Demographic Sand

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With Census data confirming that non-Hispanic white parents produced less than half of all births from July 2010 to July 2011, we are getting that much closer to what demographers have called a "tipping point:" the year 2042, when the non-white population becomes the majority throughout the United States.

What happens between now and then -- and how do we as a nation respond to these changes? While this question will be the subject of debate in coming months and years, one bit of preparation seems obvious: we shouldn't ignore the data and bury our heads in the demographic sand.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the strategy behind the Republican House 's recent vote to cut funding for the American Community Survey (ACS).

The ACS is the annual questionnaire that yields the sort of detailed information that allows us to understand population shifts and project the future. Led by Tea Party activists, the House's rationale for the funding cut was a mix of cost and privacy concerns -- but it feels a lot more like hoping that a lack of data will erase the future reality of a fundamentally altered electorate.

It won't. And given our need to understand present and future realities, we can't afford not to fund the ACS.

Indeed, one reason why the ACS and other data sources are important is that they help us understand the dynamics of change. For example, it is not immigration driving these new numbers -- immigration has, in fact, slowed dramatically and is likely to slow further, particularly given the dramatic decline in fertility in Mexico. Rather, it is the rise of a U.S.-born second generation. Fact-based strategies that use detailed longitudinal information generated from the multi-year ACS can help us recognize that successfully integrating immigrants is both possible and crucial to our economic and social future.

The ACS also helps us fully comprehend one of the unspoken implications of becoming a "majority-minority" nation -- everyone will be a minority. Relationships between traditional "minority" groups are already as important as relationships between whites and the rest of America. In a country where race is often seen in a binary fashion, this is a sea change. Using detailed ACS data to determine where this change is occurring most dramatically, to carefully break out subgroups, and to track group experiences will be critical to forging positive (albeit more complex) race relations.

We in California know how important this is. The Golden State became majority-minority back in 1999 and our own County of Los Angeles crossed that threshold back in 1987. Bumpy times ensued but we have found that rooting the conversation about the realities of tomorrow in the data of today can sometimes make a big difference.

For example, using a detailed approach only possible with the now threatened ACS, we wrote a study showing that one third of Los Angeles residents are immigrants, one half of our workforce is foreign-born, and two-thirds of our children have at least one immigrant parent - with ninety percent of those U.S.-born. As civic leaders began to recognize that these kids are not going anywhere - and their success drives the region's success -- we have worked with the California Community Foundation to convene a Council on Immigrant Integration.

The Council includes a broad spectrum of stakeholders associated with the challenges of immigrant integration -- business, labor, law enforcement, community-based organizations, education, and government agencies. Data-informed conversations about the needs of immigrants, employers, and receiving communities has been crucial to this diverse group's understanding of immigrants' complex roles in local communities and consensus about mutual responsibility to ensure social and economic well-being for all communities.

Data matters, but trust is just as critical. Our first meeting two years ago concluded simply with the request that each person have coffee with one other person they never normally work with on these matters. Those coffees -- between a member of the chamber of commerce and the leader of an immigrant rights group, for example -- and careful attention to facts paid off: in 2011 we released "Principles of Immigrant Integration" that proved critical in gaining widespread public support for the California Dream Act, a measure that has made financial aid for college a possibility for undocumented youth without affecting funds for other students.

And while our Council has toiled in true-blue California, in the true-red state of Utah, a combination of sober fact-based analysis and person-to-person interactions between "unlikely allies" led to the so-called "Utah Compact": an agreement between civic, business, and immigrant leaders on five principles to guide a more civil state-wide conversation about immigration.

The moral of the story is simple: America is changing and we need to know how. By voting to cut off funding for the ACS, the Republican majority in the House has sought to complement its current "do-nothing" approach with a "know-nothing" information base. The ultimate decision on funding will rest with negotiations with the Senate but one thing is certain: the House's action is a recipe for social tensions and uninformed policy rather than the sort of common understanding and innovative approaches we need to build bridges across ethnicities, communities, and generations.

Ange-Marie Hancock is a professor of Political Science and Manuel Pastor is a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; together, they direct UCS's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.