Our Demographic Bind

October 2015
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

As I read Alan Greenblatt’s cover story in this month’s issue about the profound demographic changes that have occurred in Nevada -- and that are coming, inevitably and quickly, to the rest of the nation -- I thought of an incident a few months ago. I was standing in line at a hotel, fuming about how long it was taking to check in, when the equally annoyed man behind me said, “What? Didn’t they know we were coming?”

We’ve known these demographic shifts were coming for decades. Today, the majority of schoolchildren are minorities, and the Census Bureau predicts that within 30 years, non-Hispanic whites will constitute less than half of the nation’s population.

Serious public policy challenges stem from this increasing diversity. In a piece he wrote for Governing back in 2007, Greenblatt described a study by social scientist Robert Putnam. Putnam had written that while “it would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity,” it would be “equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable.” Why “desirable”? A significant body of research shows that diversity is a powerful driver of productivity, innovation and economic success.

In short, pluralism is both high risk and high return. It’s certainly difficult to manage, but when it’s managed well, it is a great strength. Part of managing diversity well is to integrate it into the power structure so that the political class and particularly the police -- the enforcement arm of the political class -- reflect the makeup of the community and therefore understand its concerns. Unfortunately many police departments do not mirror the demographics of their communities. But that can change, and we’ve seen it happen -- as, for example, at the turn of the 20th century when cities went from having “Help Wanted” signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” to Irish Americans becoming a valuable part of police forces and political bodies.

Another important part of a successful strategy to convert diversity from a negative to a positive is to invest in public education. Greenblatt writes that on this score Las Vegas has potential, but “it will have to do a better job of nurturing human capital.” In the tough economic environment that state and local governments will be operating in for the foreseeable future, those that handle this demographic dilemma well will be the winners.