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Demographic Notes On The Students of Tomorrow

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"Here They Come, Ready or Not,'' an Education Week special report published May 14, 1986, presented a detailed demographic portrait of the changing school-age population. Following is a brief overview of its major conclusions, with additional current data.

  • As the general population ages, the proportion of the young who are members of minority groups--particularly blacks and Hispanics--will expand dramatically.

The passage of the postwar Baby Boom into maturity and old age is being accompanied by drastic changes in U.S. fertility rates and by the greatest wave of immigration to this country since the turn of the century.

Because the nation's overall birth rate has dropped below the replacement level, the median age of the population is climbing. Now at 30, it will reach 35 in the next decade, and three decades later will be 40.

The national fertility rate required for replacement is 2.1, but white Americans are maintaining a rate of only 1.7. The rate for blacks, on the other hand, is at 2.4, and the rate for Hispanics is 2.9--the figure maintained by the population as a whole during the Baby Boom years.

This birth-rate differential, combined with the largely Hispanic wave of immigration, will give some states a "minority majority'' in their schools by the 21st century. California is already at that stage in its elementary schools, with an estimated one in six of its public-school students now foreign-born.

The consequences that the "graying of America'' will have for Social Security and other services for the elderly--as well as for economic productivity and the standard of living--will depend, economists say, on the quality of the education provided the smaller--but far more diverse--population of young Americans.

Seventeen workers supported every retiree during the boom years of the 1950's, they note. By 1992, the ratio will be 3 to 1--with one of the workers a minority-group member. And by the year 2030, the ratio will have narrowed to 2.2 to 1. If present trends continue, many warn, one of those 2.2 workers depended on could well be undereducated and on welfare.

  • As the gap between rich and poor grows wider, a larger and larger percentage of children will fall below the poverty line.

Already, children are the poorest segment of the U.S. population, a position once held by the elderly. Forty percent of the poor in America are children, and approximately one school-age child in four lives in a family whose income is below the poverty line. Among blacks, that figure approaches one in two.

Moreover, a Congressional study released this year indicates that the situation may be worsening. While the income of the typical, or median, American family rose by 20 percent between 1970 and 1986, it shows, the median income of families headed by a person under the age of 25 dropped by 43 percent.

Among the poorest two-fifths of families, median income fell by 12 percent; among the wealthiest two-fifths, it rose by 27 percent.

Most startling, perhaps, was this finding: 20 percent of all families with a head of household under age 25--and 20 percent of all families headed by a single female parent--lived on incomes that were below one-half of the poverty line in 1986. Half of the poverty line for a family of three that year was $4,369.

  • As shifts in the traditional patterns of marriage and child-rearing continue, fewer children will have the emotional and educational advantages of a two-parent family, parents who are themselves educated, and close supervision after school.

Fewer than 5 percent of U.S. households now conform to the standard-model family of past decades--a working father, mother at home, and two or more school-age children. Twenty million of the total of 80 million households are, in fact, people living alone. Another 9.5 million consist of women raising children by themselves.

Thirty-six percent of these female heads of households lack a high-school diploma, and half of them depend on public assistance for their families' survival. Demographic projections indicate that 60 percent of the children born in 1983 will live in one-parent homes before they are 18.

There are now more married couples without children than with children. And among the latter, two-worker families are the rule, with 7 out of 10 women between the ages of 17 and 44 in the workforce.

Though the actual number of births to teen-agers and young female adults has been declining since 1960, the percentage of unwed mothers has been rising rapidly. Between 1970 and 1982, for example, the percentage of all births to white teen-agers that occurred among unwed mothers rose from 17.5 percent to 37 percent. Among black teen-age mothers, it rose from 44 percent to 87 percent.

And worsening economic prospects could exacerbate this trend, some analysts predict. The unwed-mother phenomenon, they note, has closely paralleled declines in the job opportunities and marriage rates for certain male population groups, particularly high-school dropouts and young black males.

A new Ford Foundation study, Toward a More Perfect Union: Basic Skills, Poor Families, and Our Economic Future, shows, for example, that the marriage rate for black men ages 20 to 24 dropped by an astounding 70 percent during the period of economic downturn between 1974 and 1984, going from 30 percent to 9 percent. Among all men in that age group, the proportion who were married and living with their spouses declined by almost one-half during the period.

The study's authors, Gordon Berlin and Andrew Sum, note that "with mean annual earnings of only $6,552 in 1984, the average male high-school dropout could hardly have been expected to support a family.''

"Among school dropouts and high-school graduates not going on to college,'' they conclude, "earnings and marriage patterns move almost in tandem.''

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