"[The] millennial generation is a knock-out generation at the top. But people at the bottom are in trouble -- we have to address it." That was David Gergen, CNN's senior political analyst and professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, during a recent discussion at The Commonwealth Club of California.
Gergen's optimism for the millennials was refreshing; he reminded the audience that many in the younger generation are driven by a sense of social justice and that, combined with today's technology and ability to mobilize socially, provides a great deal of potential. However, his optimism is lined with caution -- while it wasn't completely clear what he meant by "people at the bottom," there are a few interpretations: those with lesser opportunities, lesser accessibility to economic growth and education, or those in the bottom half of the achievement gap.
Educational achievement, the economy, success within the labor market, crime and incarceration, and civic engagement are all interlinked. The infographic below takes a look at various statistics from these categories to identify where the gaps are; in many cases, disparities lie along racial and ethnic lines. (Text continues below image.)
California had the highest high school graduation rates in 2011-2012 for students of Asian and Filipino backgrounds (91 percent and 90.6 percent respectively). The lowest rates were for students who identified as African-American (65.7 percent) and Native American (72.4 percent).
San Francisco however, had lower graduation rates than the state for all categories. More alarming perhaps is that across all racial and ethnic categories, San Francisco had higher dropout rates than California, the highest being for Native American students at 76.3 percent, followed by African-American students at 65.3 percent. So, the percent of African-American students that California graduates is the nearly the same as the percent of African-American students who drop out of San Francisco schools.
These trends follow students into higher education. Students of color comprise less than half of the enrollment in higher educational institutions and graduation rates for students of color tend to be lower. A glance at California's public school graduation rates from 2010 shows that only 19 percent of African-American students graduated with a bachelor's degree in four years; on the higher end of the spectrum, 41.8 percent of Asian students graduated in four years. However, California is doing well compared to the nation, where the average graduation rates at four years and six years were below that of California's. The troubling aspect of this statistic is that nationwide in 2010, only 16.4 percent of African-American students graduated in four years from a public institution.
However, our educational achievement gap is not beyond repair. The Education Trust released two reports in 2010 that highlighted institutions, both public and private, with the lowest graduation gaps between African-American students and Hispanic students. University of California, Riverside, made the list of public schools with the smallest graduation rate gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students. Riverside, among the other schools on the list, has found a way to reduce the achievement gap and those lessons are worth circulating.
The economy is closely tied to education, and trends and disparities within education can manifest into our country's economic demographics. Unemployment numbers from 2012 show that in the United States, the highest raw number of unemployed people identified as white. However, when looking at the racial spread of the percent of labor force that is unemployed, those who identify as African-American rank the highest, at 13.9 percent. It is important to note that the labor force is "based on the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years old and over." The labor force definition doesn't include anyone who is unemployed and not looking for a job -- in many cases, discouraged workers fall into this category. Similarly, unemployment is a tricky statistic because it doesn't count anyone who is only working part-time or is underemployed in any other capacity.
When looking at unemployment numbers for anyone between the ages of 16 and 24, the disparities are more pronounced. Generally, young adults have seen very high unemployment rates throughout the Great Recession and in its aftermath. The data from June 2012 represents this trend: the highest unemployment rate was at 30.2 percent for African-Americans, followed by 20.5 percent for Hispanics/Latinos. The factor of concern here is that even though unemployment is not an all-encompassing statistic, these numbers are high. And when we account for the underemployed, these numbers will only increase.
The unemployment numbers are more profound when combined with labor force numbers: if a person is not in the labor force to begin with, they cannot be counted as unemployed. That is what we see when looking at the unemployment rate for Asians, the lowest of the group. The high number of Asians not in the labor force (56 percent) explains the low unemployment rate. However, the numbers are concerning when we see high unemployment rates combined with high numbers of people not in the labor force, as is the case for African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Not only does this mean that there are large numbers of youth in these groups who are simply not looking for work, but there are also large numbers of youth who are actively looking for work and not finding any.
Crime and Incarceration
The data for juvenile arrest rates is interesting. In three of the four crime categories, African-American juveniles had the highest rate of arrest per 100,000 people. Native American juveniles had the highest arrest rate for liquor law violations.
The numbers for those in prison tilt in a variety of directions, including based on age, race and ethnicity. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice on prisoner statistics in 2011 noted the following:
"Among males--who accounted for 93% of the sentenced prison population--black non-Hispanic and Hispanic prisoners were generally younger than white non-Hispanic prisoners. More than half (52 percent) of white male prisoners were age 39 or younger, compared to 63 percent of black and 68 percent of Hispanic male prisoners."
The age disparity in imprisonment skews in both the younger and older direction:
"Among prisoners ages 18 to 19, black males were imprisoned at more than 9 times the rate of white males."
"Among persons ages 20 to 24, black males were imprisoned at about 7 times that of white males."
"In 2011, Hispanic and black male prisoners age 65 or older were imprisoned at rates between 3 and 5 times those of white males."
"Among persons aged 60 to 64, the black male imprisonment rate was 5 times that of the white male imprisonment rate. In comparison, Hispanic males were imprisoned at 2 to 3 times the rate of white males in 2011."
However, the disparity remains even when these groups are excluded:
"Excluding the youngest and oldest age groups, black males were imprisoned at rates that ranged between 5 and 7 times the rates of white males."
The disparity continues when we look at the gender split:
"Black females were imprisoned at between 2 and 3 times the rate of white females, while Hispanic females were imprisoned at between 1 and 3 times the rate of white females."
The data from 2011 shows that of all sentenced female prisoners in 2011 between the ages of 25 to 29, the highest percentage were Hispanic (19.6 percent). Of all female Hispanic prisoners, the highest percentage imprisoned were between 25 and 29 years old; for African-American and white female prisoners, the highest percentage imprisoned fell between 30 and 34 years old.
All of this data collectively shows that younger people of color are at a disadvantage within the current systems in place. The changes and turmoil of the economy have only exacerbated the disparities in opportunity and achievement that previously existed. However this problem also presents a unique opportunity for millennials to use their entrepreneurial spirit, technological access and desire for social service to enact change that will positively affect our own generation. Individuals from the millennial generation will take over as policymakers, as heads of our institutions, as elected officials and as representatives of the private sector. As such, they will wield immense power. And with power comes the responsibility of addressing the discrepancies we see in our systems today. How can we tackle some of these discrepancies? Share your thoughts and ideas below.
The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent The Commonwealth Club of California.