A 1997 summer movie involved bad guy Nick Cage switching faces with FBI good guy John Travolta. Cage as Travolta goes to the office and suburbs, while Travolta as Cage goes to prison (until he escapes of course). I don’t remember how, and you have to just roll with it because it’s a summer popcorn flick. Anyway, in one scene now “bad guy in disguise” Travolta goes back to his house in the suburbs and removes a pack of cigarettes from his teenage daughter’s purse. Expecting her father to angrily admonish her for smoking, she is astonished when he instead puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it up. “There is going to be some changes around here,” he explains while blowing out a large puff of smoke.
Social scientists often knowingly tell each other “In the land of the social-science blind, the demographer is the one-eyed king.” Political scientists, sociologists, economists in other words may or may not know what they are talking about but demographers can pretty reliably tell you things about the future. In an earlier blog episode I used Census data to demonstrate that Florida school districts were going to be bursting with K-12 students in school districts no matter what sort of school choice options are adopted. I decided to look into the Census data a bit more deeply. People working in public schools can stop worrying but Florida lawmakers have every reason to be alarmed about the broader demographic picture. In short, Florida’s demographics dictate that there are going to be some changes around here.
Economists calculate “dependency ratios” and have found them predictive of economic growth. A dependency ratio essentially compares the number of young and old people in a population to the number of people between the ages of young and old. The logic behind the notion is that young people require a heavy investment in social services (primarily education) while the old also require a heavy investment (primarily in the form of health care at the state level). A dependency ratio basically tells you the number of people in the young/old categories compared the number of people in neither category (i.e. people of typical working age).
The United States Census Bureau calculates an Age Dependency Ratio by adding the number of people aged 18 and under to the number of 65 and older and dividing it by the number of people aged 19 to 64. They then multiply the figure by 100 just to make things tidy. The formula looks like:
Dependency Ratio = ((Young + Old)/(Working Age)) * 100
Now it goes without saying that some people continue to work and pay taxes past the age of 65. It is also the case however that many people above the age of 19 are still in school and thus are not yet working and/or paying much in the way of taxes. We all probably know hyper-productive 70 year olds and twenty-somethings in the midst of a six year taxpayer subsidized odyssey of self-discovery that will not number “graduation” among an otherwise wonderful set of experiences. Nevertheless, the broad idea is to roughly assess the number of people riding in the cart compared to the number pulling the cart at any given time. People of course both benefit and pay into these programs at different stages of life, but the current ratios serve as a measure of societal strain.
The United States had a dependency ratio of 58.9 in 2010. Florida, a state with an abundance of retirees and a large youth population, had a dependency ratio of 62.9. So essentially for every 100 working aged people (ages 19-64) in Florida, there were 62.9 people either below 18 or 65-plus in 2010.
Still with me? Okay here comes the scary part- let’s look at what is scheduled to happen to Florida’s dependency ratio between now and the year 2030.
That folks is a pretty grim looking number for 2030. The Census Bureau forecasts large increases of both young and old people in the decades ahead. This trend will have profound implications for public policy, especially for education and health care.
Our K-12 system, colleges and universities and health care system, in short, must improve both their quality and cost-efficiency to cope with the changes on the way. In short each of these systems must become better and simultaneously cheaper at least on a per-client basis. The Economist magazine recently wrote about precisely this dilemma in reviewing the evidence on charter schools:
In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.
I’m an optimist. I don’t see these challenges as insurmountable. I believe that we have every chance to be healthier, wealthier and better educated in the future despite various obstacles. I do however believe that our current configurations for education and health systems will need reformatting in order to achieve these goals.
I predict that by 2030 Florida will have sorted through these challenges. Those of you there to do so will look back over early 20th century battles over whether or not to increase parental options will likely look at the current debate as both antiquated and quaint.
About the author
Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner
Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.