01/22/2013 08:35 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2013

Latino, White Population Trading Places, But Politics Still Behind New Demographic Reality

In the years just after World War II, California’s health department was convinced that one region of the state would absorb most of the area’s surging population.

State officials who oversaw roads and bridges, dams and even schools each had their own ideas. The politics of population change and public spending grew so intense, that state officials decided to create a central repository for population projections, in the state's finance department. That move might have been relegated to the rarely-read annals of bureaucratic history, if it weren’t for a section of the state budget report released by California Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) office last week.

The state's central population researchers found that by July, California’s Latino population will reach parity with the state’s non-Hispanic white population. Each group will make up about 39 percent of the people who live in the state. By the end of December, Latinos will outnumber non-Hispanic whites. That’s a population projection that holds meaning not just for California but also for the nation, said Steve Murdock, a demographer and the former head of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“This is part of a national pattern,” said Murdock, now a sociologist at Rice University in Texas. “You are seeing it in the North and South, in the East and in the West. The only difference will be when this becomes the new reality in each state.”

In New Mexico -- where Latinos reached parity with the non-Hispanic white population in the last decade -- and Texas, Latinos are expected to become each state’s majority population by 2020. Other states will follow. When Latino population growth is combined with that of Asian-Americans and much slower black population growth, most demographers anticipate that the United States will become a minority-majority nation no later than 2050, Murdock said.

Those population changes should in no way be a revelation. Demographers and other researchers have been projecting that the United States will become a minority-majority country since at least the early part of the last decade. California jumped ahead of the national trend because of immigration, births, new residents from other states and slightly higher-than-average life spans, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research organization.

The most recent census also revealed that in 108 of the nation’s roughly 3,000 counties, Latinos made up the largest portion of the population. And in 88 of these areas, the population is already majority Hispanic. That’s true of the counties that include cities such as McAllen, Texas (Hidalgo County), and rural and suburban communities, such as Seward County, Kan., Lopez said.

The pattern that will take shape in California this year marks the most significant population shift in U.S. history since Irish, Italian, German and other Southern and Eastern European immigrants began to outnumber U.S. residents of English origin in the late 1890s and early 1900s, then have children, Murdock said. And that, of course, has political meaning.

In 1920, the country passed its first immigration control laws, with quotas designed to reduce the number of immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern European countries. And Congress took the unusual step of deviating from the constitutional mandate to reassign the congressional seats held by each state based on population growth -- because too many rural and mostly white, English-origin representatives stood to lose their seats, according to Murdock.

Today, states with rapidly growing Latino populations where immigration was uncommon between the 1890s and the 1990s -- such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas -- have passed a number of laws that aim to discourage undocumented immigrants (and in some cases, legal immigrants) from making these places home. Some of those measures include penalizing school districts that fail to count the number of children of undocumented immigrants attending classes.

“Education has been the coin of the realm, if you will, in America,” Murdock continued. “Meaning historically, it is the way that you progress [economically], how groups come along. I think the extent to which we invest in the education of Latinos and our newest immigrant populations become fully engaged in our economy will depend a great deal on how we provide schools and other services that these children need. That’s what will determine if the country remains competitive or not.”

To reinforce just how self-defeating the country’s spending habits could prove to be, Murdock points to three key figures. The average age of white women living in the United States is 41, meaning that the share of women who have little to no childbearing years ahead of them is large. The average age of Latinas living in the U.S. is 25. Finally, in 46 of the 50 states, the non-Hispanic population under the age of 18 declined between 2000 and 2010, he said.

President Barack Obama echoed similar sentiments in his inauguration speech Monday.

“We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” Obama said.

But if public spending patterns and priorities in Texas offer any indication, the country is already in trouble, said Julian Vasquez Heilig, an assistant professor of education policy and planning at the University of Texas, Austin. In 2011, the state’s most recent legislative session, elected officials slashed $5.4 billion out of Texas’ K-12 education budget.

That same year, Latino students became the majority population in the state’s public schools, Vasquez Heilig said. Across the country today, about 25 percent of all kindergarten students are Latino.

“If the student growth in Texas had been white kids,” said Vasquez Heilig, who studies how educational policies and funding affect diverse students, “I do not believe that the legislature would have cut $5.4 billion from our school budget. I believe personally that there is a racial dynamic to funding in our schools.”

Many states around the country slashed education funding during and just after the recession. Texas legislators who voted for the cuts said the recession and the state’s budgetary struggles made the cut unavoidable. Vasquez Heilig thinks the overwhelmingly white and Republican 2011 state legislature didn’t feel connected or politically beholden to the state’s Latino population and may have been seeking political revenge on the 70 percent of Latino voters who supported Democrats.

“I know that’s controversial but I’m saying it," he said. "We know for sure that race and politics are inextricably linked.”

And Texas is not alone. Right now, black and Latino children -- particularly those from low-income families -- generally attend the worst schools in the country and have the least experienced and least qualified teachers. Some of the country's best-known education reformers pretend that this situation is sustainable, even desirable, according to Vasquez Heilig. Some are even surprised or try to disguise the fact that schools filled with brand-new teachers typically fail to make academic progress.

The Latino voters and the collation of minority voters who helped put Obama back in office will have to push federal and state officials to change this, said Stella Rouse, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, whose book, Legislative Process: Interests and Influence, will be published in March. Access to quality education and health care rank among the top two priorities identified by Latinos across the country, Rouse found.

California is moving in the right direction, she said. The state’s house and senate leaders are both Latinos and the legislature is expected to consider a school funding measure that aims to create more egalitarian conditions in rich and poor school districts and pump more funds into teaching students who are learning English.

The Democratic Party in California has done a lot of grassroots political work. Public policy debates about Republican-backed measures designed to discourage illegal immigration, such as Proposition 187, also helped to galvinize that state's Latino voters decades ago, Rouse said.