The National Question

The Silent Catastrophe

October 12, 2009

Multiple Pages
The Silent Catastrophe

The media love disaster. One can hardly sit through a half hour of cable news without hearing dire prophecies of “climate change” and other ecotastrophes. And over the past year, television pundits have warned incessantly that without massive Wall Street bailouts and compulsory Swine Flu vaccinations, the sky just might fall. This all comes on the heels of years of talk of terrorist attacks and the potential for the African AIDs epidemic to infect the middle class.

Not all of this is hysteria, of course, and without question the United States faces real economic and security challenges. But the most obvious, perilous, and, most importantly, preventable catastrophe looming on America’s horizon is one that the media and political class refuse to talk about.     

In his famous speech of April 20, 1968, the British statesman Enoch Powell said, “The discussion of future grave but, with effort now, avoidable evils is the most unpopular and at the same time the most necessary occupation for the politician.”

One great, avoidable evil we face is the declining quality of the American work force.

The Census Bureau tells us that if immigration continues at its current rate of nearly two million people a year, whites will become a minority of the under-18 child population in just 14 years—in 2023—and will become a minority of the working population just 16 years later. The greatest increase will be in Hispanics, who are now dropping out of high school at higher rates than blacks, doing little better than blacks when they manage to stay in school, and are the group least likely to go to college. Demographers are beginning to warn that as well-educated, white baby boomers retire and are replaced by poorly educated blacks and Hispanics, the productivity gains of the last several hundred years will be reversed, and the United States could go into a tailspin.

“We have the possibility of transforming the American dream into the American tragedy,” says Irwin Kirsch, senior research director at the Educational Testing Service. He warns that our increasingly non-white and immigrant workforce threatens not only our standard of living, but the very survival of republican government based on an informed middle class.

Here are some of the facts. In 2007, 93.5 percent of white and 93.1 percent of Asian 18- to 24-year-olds had graduated from high school. The figures for blacks and Hispanics were 88.8 percent and 72.7 percent, meaning that Hispanics were more than four times more likely than whites and 2.4 times more likely than blacks to have failed to graduate from high school.

Part of the problem for immigrants is adjusting to the U.S.; Hispanics born here are more likely to finish high school than those who immigrate as children. However, the graduation rate slightly decreases for the second U.S.-born generation (85.1 percent vs. 85.9 percent), so that in 2007, even after three generations in the United States, Hispanics had a dropout rate that was still 2.3 times the white rate and 33 percent higher than the black rate.

Big-city public school districts, which are heavily black and Hispanic, have appalling records. In Detroit, only 26.8 percent of students graduated on time in 2006. The other worst performers were Philadelphia: 39.1 percent, Dallas: 40.7 percent, Los Angeles: 47.7 percent, and Washington, DC: 48.8 percent.

Jefferson High School, which is 90 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black, had the worst dropout rate in Los Angeles: 58 percent. That is not the figure for students who fail to graduate on time; those students do not graduate at all.

Hispanics who stay in school do badly. In 2007, their fourth-grade performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test was the same as blacks: already two years behind whites and Asians. By 12th grade, the average black or Hispanic is reading and doing math at the level of the average white 8th-grader.

Hispanics are the least likely group to go to college. In 2003, 28 percent of Hispanics aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college, compared to 38 percent of blacks and 52 percent of whites. Most groups have been increasing their college attendance rates, but between 1974 and 2003, rates for Hispanic men declined. Again, the problem is not just one of adapting to the United States. College graduation rates for U.S.-born Hispanics are only slightly better than those for immigrants, and Hispanics who have been in the country for three generations or more are still less likely even than blacks to graduate from college.

In recent times, the American workforce has been the best educated in the world: 85 percent of adult Americans are high school graduates, up from just 25 percent in 1940. Twenty-eight percent have a college degree, a fivefold increase since 1940. Better education helped raise real average per capita income in the United States 40 percent between 1980 and 2000.

This rise in income will reverse as black, Hispanic, and immigrant workers replace whites. California will be particularly hard hit because of its large Hispanic population. By 2009, 50 percent of its public school students were Hispanic, as were nearly three quarters of the 700,000 children in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Two-thirds of kindergarteners were Hispanic and many could not speak English.

According to a 2007 report from the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated 400,000 legal immigrants and 350,000 illegal immigrants were illiterate in their native languages, much less English. This contributed to the first decline in literacy in California’s history. In 2003, its adult illiteracy rate of 23 percent—up 50 percent in 10 years—put it last among all states.

The California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara estimated in 2009 that because high school dropouts commit more crime than students who stay in school, dropouts cost California $1.1 billion annually in law enforcement costs and victim damages while they are still minors. This estimate did not include lost productivity costs as adults or continuing public outlays for adult criminals and indigents.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education predicts that because of declining education and productivity, average per capita income for the nation will have fallen two percent by 2020. For California, because of its heavily Hispanic population, the center predicted a real per capita income decline of $2,467 or no less than 10.8 percent, the biggest loss for any state. “For the U.S. economy, the implication of these trends is really stark,” said Patrick Callan, president of the center.

Texas faces serious problems, too. State demographer Steve H. Murdock notes that if immigration continues, the Texas public schools will be 80 percent minority by 2040, up from 57 percent in 2000. He calculates that if black and Hispanic graduation rates do not improve, by 2040 Texans will see real, average per capita income fall by $6,500. Mr. Murdock warns of a surge in crime, poverty, and every other social problem.

McKenzie and Company estimates that if black and Hispanic students had been able to close the achievement gap in 1998, American GDP 10 years later would have been larger by up to half-a-trillion dollars.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), based in New Jersey, predicts that all states will see a drop in reading and math ability. Andrew Sum of Northeastern University in Boston works with ETS on research projects. “There is no time that I can tell you in the last hundred years,” he says, when literacy and numeracy have declined, “but if you don’t change outcomes for a wide variety of groups, this is the future we face.”

The U.S. is slipping badly in comparison with other developed countries. ETS has also analyzed the results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), which tests the math and verbal abilities of adults in the 20 richest countries. The United States ranked 12th out of 20 in both math and reading; Australia and Belgium are among the countries that score better than we do. ETS’s most eye-opening conclusions, however, come from breaking out the scores of different groups.

If blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants are excluded from the American results, our performance rises from 12th, to 2nd in reading and 5th in math. This means immigrants, blacks, and Hispanics are dragging our rating down to 12th from 2nd and 5th. Likewise, the oldest Americans (56 and older) came in second in reading whereas younger Americans, those 26-35 and 16-25 years old, ranked 11th and 14th, respectively. The oldest age groups—the ones with the most whites—do the best while the youngest groups with the fewest whites to worst. The ETS also found that native-born blacks and Hispanics performed at only the 28th percentile, compared to other rich countries, and immigrants at only the 17th percentile.

The same racial pattern is found in student scores. The Program for International Student Assessment is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Every three years it tests the academic abilities of 15-year-olds in many different countries, and American scores have been declining steadily. In 2006, the United States ranked 29th on the science/math ability scale, lagging behind Latvia and Croatia. However, if the scores only of whites were counted, the U.S. ranked 10th, in the company of Japan, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. Hispanics-only scores fall to 40th, and blacks-only scores to 50th, just ahead of Indonesia. American scores are worse than they seem. By age 15, many of the worst performing American students have dropped out, which means those who are tested are not a representative sample.

Many Americans have criticized companies for moving white-collar jobs overseas because labor is cheaper. In coming decades, companies may move them offshore because they can’t find Americans who can do them at any wage.

Our rulers are not completely unaware of what is happening. The No Child Left Behind Act was passed by overwhelming, bi-partisan majorities in 2002 to improve student performance and bridge achievement gaps. The government budgeted $24.4 billion for the program for fiscal year 2007, and its requirements for “Adequate Yearly Progress” have forced huge changes on many schools. This is only the latest effort in more than 25 years of federal attempts to improve education. The result? In 2009, Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration, put it this way: “This is a nearly unrelenting tale of woe and disappointment. If there’s any good news here, I can’t find it.”

Lagging non-white achievement is such a preoccupation that in 2007, 4,000 educators and experts attended an “Achievement Gap Summit” held in Sacramento. They attended no fewer than 125 panels on how to help blacks and Hispanics do as well as whites and Asians. There are about 16,000 school districts in the United States, and not one has figured out how to do that—but we all keep pretending it’s possible.

“Re-segregation,” a favorite liberal bugaboo, is also manifestly not the cause of our current woes. Blacks and Hispanics score in equivalent ranges, whether they account for fewer than five percent of a state’s student population or more than 20 percent. The states with the highest overall student scores have racial gaps that are equal to or even wider than states with lower overall scores.

What would most baffle Enoch Powell about all this is why there is so much talk about bridging the achievement gaps but so little talk about keeping Hispanic immigrants out of the country. If Hispanics are not good additions to the workforce, why let more in? The United States is like a badly leaking ship that is in sight of a dry dock. Instead of sailing into the dock and fixing the leak, it devotes so much power to running pumps that it can’t drive the propellers anymore.

An increasingly Hispanic workforce is, in Powell’s terms, an avoidable evil. But we will fail to avoid it simply because we are unable say to Mexicans, “Your lot isn’t working out too well here, so stay home.” Instead, we try one preposterous gap-closing scheme after another and wonder why we can’t get blood from turnips.

The Great Chinese Encyclopedia, edition of 2039, will, no doubt, have a thoughtful article entitled “The Decline of the West.” By then, the white man’s downfall will be obvious to everyone, but the reasons for it will baffle even the best Chinese minds. The article will conclude, with a shrug, that Occidentals are inscrutable.

This article is adapted from a forthcoming book on race and immigration.

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