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A meeting at the University of New Hampshire in 2005, part of a conference to encourage minority students to attend college there. (AP photo)

Are politicians prepared for the enormous change taking place in America?

ASK THIS | April 05, 2012

Before long more than half the U.S. population will be people of color. Today many of them are disadvantaged, in need of better education, job training and financial assistance – and many will be voting this year. Incumbents and challengers need to be asked what ideas, if any, they have for a group that represents so much of America’s future.

By Judith Bell

It’s an election year!

That means stump speeches, town halls, and debates as elected officials and hopefuls criss-cross the country. It also means a sharp increase in the number of new voters headed to the polls to vote for the first time.

Our nation’s demographic shift will be increasingly evident as voters line up. In 2010, the number of eligible young voters (under the age of 29) was 44 million—greater than the number of eligible voters over the age of 65 by about 9 million people. The number of eligible young voters of color increased from 32% in 2008 to 35% in 2010. This segment of the voting population is becoming even more diverse each year.

Today, young people of color make up almost half of the youth population. By 2042, the majority of Americans will be people of color. The young people at the polls this year represent the future of our country, and will be looking for solutions to the problems that affect their neighborhoods, their chance at a good education, their ability to achieve their dreams and provide for their families.

This is a tall order. Since September, the Occupy movement has brought home a simple message: our nation is one of great inequality, of a wealthy 1 percent and the 99 percent. And the reality of the economic inequality is that barriers to success disproportionately hold back people of color and young people in low-income communities. Black children experience less upward mobility and more downward mobility than their white counterparts: 45 percent of black children of solidly middle-income parents end up poor, compared with 16 percent of white children. The poverty rate among Latinos is growing, and census data also show that some Asian populations, like Hmong people, live in deep poverty.

Additionally, 45 percent of jobs in 2018 are expected to require at least an associate's degree, but among today's workers only 27 percent of African Americans, 26 percent of U.S.-born Latinos, and 14 percent of Latino immigrants have achieved this level of education. Closing this wide and persistent racial gap in educational attainment is key to building the strong workforce that will keep the American economy strong and competitive globally.

These issues haven’t surfaced yet in the long presidential primary and caucus season that began in January. When the general election debates start I hope candidates in the presidential race, as well as in Senate and House races, will start to address these critical issues for the future of our nation.

Additionally, the electoral process itself must be made more equitable. Unfortunately, the trend in some places is in the opposite direction. Some states have put in place repressive voter ID requirements that may block people from voting -- requirements that would disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color. That's undemocratic, mean-spirited, and short-sighted.

To ignore poverty and the changing America would not only be a grievous slight, it also could prove a costly political error. The fact is, to build a stronger future for the entire country, our leaders must invest in the communities of color and poor white communities hit first and worst by the recession. And new voters will look for representatives who will fight to make our country more equitable, inclusive, and fair.

Some questions for incumbents and challengers:

Q. Since young people of color represent our nation’s future, and currently receive little educational support, job training, and financial assistance, what are your proposals for this incoming American majority?

Q. Many of the newly eligible young voters of color are looking for candidates who can provide the opportunities they need for a brighter future. Can you explain what kinds of policies you would champion to deliver targeted programs or advance broad approaches for greater economic and social equity?

Q. Given the barriers to higher education and good jobs facing communities of color, what steps are needed to remove these stumbling blocks, build a skilled workforce, and strengthen our economy?

Q. What is your vision of an equitable tax system with the burden spread in terms of who pays and who benefits?

Q. How would your proposed policies around transportation, infrastructure investment, and education affect low-income people? More specifically, how would they address public transportation, affordable housing, and public education on which low-income people rely?

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