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Arizona's demographic hourglass is here and now

“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

If you’re old enough to remember that voiceover for the TV soap opera, “Days of Our Lives,” see if you can recognize yourself in a similar metaphor for Arizona’s future:

Arizona’s demographics are an hourglass. The bottom half are sands of mostly white baby boomers already or increasingly moving into retirement, while the top half is full with mostly young Latinos steadily joining the workforce, maturing into voting age and building families.

Further illustrating this hourglass explainer is the fact that the median age for non-Hispanic whites in Arizona is 44, while for Latinos it’s 25. That’s quite a difference.

Arizona leads in so-called “racial generation gap” – the difference between the percentage of ethnic minorities who are 65 or older and those who are under age 18. Census data analysis by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, listed the 2013 gap at 41 in Arizona (with minorities making up 18 percent of those 65 and older and 59 percent under age 18).

According to Pew researchers: “A racial mismatch between the older population and the younger population can exacerbate those generational tensions, as can income differences between wealthier whites and poorer people of color. As states continue to recover from the budget shortfalls of the past few years, this racial generational divide is likely to influence policy making on a wide range of issues.”

That sounds like Arizona – except for that part about influencing policy making. In Arizona, rare is the moment when a state leader talks about either the challenges or opportunities associated with the state’s changing demographics.

It seems the “L word” – Latino – is seldom spoken in polite company. Instead, references to Latino are usually reserved harsh rhetoric about illegal immigration, even though virtually all of the state’s Latino youth are U.S. citizens who were either born here or naturalized, and Arizona actually is at or below net zero in terms of migration from Mexico.

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But when was the last time a top politician talked about Arizona’s Latino educational attainment gap? The 2010 report by Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona’s Economic Future, illustrated with data projections what would happen to Arizona should the state continue to ignore its Latino education: Arizona’s median income for all would drop, with too few Latinos receiving the education they need to be successful in the job market and, in turn, Arizona becoming a permanent a second- or third-tier state in terms of ability to compete economically.

With its booming Latino population, Arizona has the workforce in terms of sheer numbers – just not in terms of high numbers related to SAT scores, college eligibility, postsecondary degrees or certificates of skill. Without a game changer, we will have more people taking from the system than putting into the system because a greater percentage of Arizonans will be living in poverty.

The impact of the brown-and-the-gray society that is largely Arizona has many consequences, not the least of which is mistrust due to a lack of understanding of connection. As a Pew report noted: “Since the late 1990s, researchers have found that when faced with a young population that looks markedly different from their own, Americans are more likely to vote ‘no’ on local tax referendums to finance public school education and are more likely to support spending cuts. This is particularly true when the older population is predominantly white and the school-age population is not, according to a 2012 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.”

Many community and education leaders do not find it a coincidence that state dollars are being cut or siphoned from public schools in favor of charter or private schools at a time when a growing number of children of color are attending public schools and whites are choosing to go elsewhere.

The us-versus-them mentality fails to grasp the future. No longer are there Arizona issues on one hand and Latino issues on the other. They are one and the same and they go hand in hand. Who are going to be the caregivers for our growing senior population? Who is going to be putting into Social Security to help support the system? Who is going to be making up the majority of tax base for Arizona to provide for programs, services and roads? The answers are easy, but to what extent is not.

There is still time to address the biggest threat facing Arizona’s economic future, but like sands of the hourglass …

Well, you get the picture. One thing is for certain: Arizona cannot avoid the drama simply by running out the clock in hopes of finding a secure retirement for some and an insecure working life for others. There cannot be two Arizonas because the two bulbs of the hourglass are connected and they all eventually lead to the same place – here and now, today and tomorrow.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

The director of communications for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at ASU, Garcia is a longtime, award-winning journalist whose experience as a top editor, columnist and reporter included positions at The Arizona Republic, The Daily Times, Tucson Citizen, USA Today and The Associated Press.

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