Dowell Myers keeps a very sympathetic perspective on how most of us cling to views forged by past realities, even when the facts that framed those views have changed. Take, for example, the matter of immigration’s impact on Southern California. The U.S. Congress is weighing legislation at this very moment to shore up our southern border defenses: more surveillance drones in the sky, beefed-up patrols on the ground, the mother of all fences demarcating America from everything south of it. All this occurring, by the way, as birth rates in Mexico and Latin American plummet and illegal border crossings have slowed dramatically. (See Table 35 in Homeland Security’s Yearbook on Immigration Statistics.)
What many saw as an immigration tsunami that tripped societal and economic alarms prior to 2001 has slowed to a trickle today. Still, many Americans remain stuck on “react” with no new input to help them update their views. Media hysterics, racist hyperbole, vigilantes roaming California deserts – not to mention the very visible fact that millions of immigrants in the 80s and 90s settled in cities and towns across the Southwest – all left an indelible impression on the public mind. “The only problem is,” says Myers, a distinguished professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California with a focus on population demographics, “the narrative of that era has little whatsoever to do with today’s evolving story.”
The new demographic narrative has turned Myers into a “man on a mission,” he insists. “Unless we appreciate the magnitude of the changes happening in our population dynamics,” Myers says, we’re in danger of deepening a divisive political atmosphere that withholds critical investments in education, job training, housing, mobility and health care. Those are precisely the places to spend public money to insure that the heavily immigrant current generation in Southern California contributes to a prosperous overall future and, through taxes, to the economic security boomers will need as they age out of the workforce, retire and grow older and sicker.
Myers mounted his counter-assault on public misperceptions of our present dilemma with a 2008 book, Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America (Russell Sage Foundation). Since then, he’s addressed dozens of influential crowds – including the Community Partners board of directors in June – and advocated for a kind of “intergenerational connectedness” that seems to defy the present state of hyper-polarization characterizing our national politics.
Strangely, the mortgage crisis of the last five years afforded Myers an ethnically and morally neutral bridge linking the shared fates of older whites and young Latinos.
“Old folks,” says Myers, “crucially need the young to make it.”
Whatever their racial or national origin, if the young fail then big parts of American society tank along with them. And those counting on rising housing values and stable social security transfer payments – a group notably comprised of older white retirees or near-retirees – stand to lose the most.
“The average American baby boomer has 50 percent of their retirement nest egg tied up in the equity of their home,” Myers points out. They can either insist on lugging around outmoded baggage about the “browning” of America or, at the very least, take a practical pocketbook approach and adopt political sensibilities that lead to aggressive social investment.
“After all,” Myers asks, “who is going to buy your house?”
He’s got a valid and piercing point. Absent a ready and eager market of willing buyers earning robust incomes, homeowners’ nest eggs crack and fall apart. If that happens, who’s going to stick around to hear what likely comes next: the sound of social fabric ripping?