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The Millennial Tipping Point

In more ways than one, young Americans are about to have their moment. 

Millennials (typically thought of as those born between 1982 and 2000) now make up the largest group of consumers in the economy, with younger households disproportionately driving American consumer spending.1 Likewise, for the first time in history, Millennials also make up the same proportion of the American electorate as the Baby Boomers. 

In every recent election, we have seen some variation of Millennial “scolding,” with pundits lamenting the fact that this generation just isn’t as engaged as previous generations. About half of registered Millennial voters don’t identify with either major political party, meaning that their views and preferences aren’t necessarily represented in party platforms. 

For the 2016 election, however, the premise that young voters won’t turn out doesn’t seem to be holding true. Looking at the primary elections and caucuses held to-date, young people in both parties are turning out in numbers on par with the high youth turnout in the 2008 election. Senator Bernie Sanders has dominated among the youth vote, with Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump following in second and third. 

It remains unclear, however, what youth turnout and support may look like in the general election. In a hypothetical Clinton vs. Trump face off in November, according to current Reuters polling,2 Secretary Clinton would take the youth vote by a 2-1 margin. The second largest group in the same poll—a good 24 percent of young Americans—say they do not know who they would support or would not vote. This may highlight the lack of strong party identification among young voters, or may underscore a lack of enthusiasm among Millennial voters for these Presidential candidates. 

Millennials have a distinct agenda for the next President, with a strong focus on the economy and college affordability. This is the most educated generation in American history, but one that has been handicapped by a distinct set of economic obstacles. An unfavorable labor market has made it difficult for students to pay off debt—wages for college graduates have grown 60 percent more slowly than those of the general population.3 

Young people are looking for a leader who will prioritize their long-term financial security. It is unclear whether Millennials will turn out in November 2016, and whether turning out will be enough to get them what they want. What is clear, however, is that sometime in the not-too-distant future, the Millennial voting bloc will arrive on the scene, and American politics for the next 40 years will be dominated by their priorities and worldviews.

  1. J P Morgan Chase, Local Consumer Commerce. December 2015. Available online: http://bit.ly/JPMorgan-LocalConsumerCommerce  
  2. http://bit.ly/ReutersPoll-March2016 
  3. The Atlantic, Why are Wages for College Grads So Terrible? Available online: http://bit.ly/Atlantic-CollegeGradWages


Sarah Swanbeck is the Executive Director of the Center on Governing & Investing in the Future (CGIF). She received her Masters in Public Policy from the Goldman School in 2011.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Policy Notes.

Who’s in Charge?

Political Parties and Polarization in the 2016 Election

It wasn't long ago that the 2016 Presidential Election seemed as if it would be business as usual. The Republican candidate field was crowded, but Jeb Bush seemed to have the implicit blessing of his Party and be well on the path toward the nomination. Donald Trump, the pundits said, was a summer phenomenon who would be gone by the fall.

By Super Tuesday 2016, the story had changed—dramatically. As the Republican Party marches toward its July Convention, the only sure thing is that nothing is for sure. As a result, the Republican Party—and perhaps political parties in general—won’t be the same.

“The conventional wisdom among people who study American politics is that political parties here are weak relative to parties in other countries,” says Professor Sarah Anzia, a political scientist who studies elections, political parties and interest groups. “In other countries, people strongly affiliate with a political party. They go to party meetings and vote according to lists of candidates crafted for them by their party.”

The relative weakness of American political parties is tied to the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century, which introduced reforms like the direct primary. Until then, party leaders gathered in proverbial smoke-filled rooms to decide who the Party’s nominees would be. Now voters would have a say.

As a result, notes Professor Anzia, political scientists in the last four decades have assumed that American elections are candidate-centric. “In that model, all it takes for someone to run for office and to win is the ambition of the individual and that individual’s ability to raise money,” she says.

In 2008, a group of political scientists advanced a new theory in The Party Decides (University of Chicago Press). They argued that rather than being weak, political parties were made up of coalitions with common interests, whose leaders effectively selected candidates long before the candidates reach the ballot box.

“This is known as the ‘invisible primary,” says Professor Anzia. “The idea is that the party elite do whatever they can to convince the voters of the best candidate and the voters, presumably, fall in line.”

This theory has come under fire in this current presidential campaign.

“What Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and everything that is happening in the Republican party makes clear is that even if you think of the Republican Party as a coalition of interest groups, there’s nothing that says that the groups will agree on what is best,” says Professor Anzia. “We tend to think of parties as unitary actors with someone on top, deciding what is best for the Party, but that’s not actually happening. There is very little Reince Priebus [Chairman of the Republican party] can do to enforce discipline and cohesion in the party. He can’t force voters to vote a certain way, nor can he compel candidates to leave the race. The head of the Republican party actually has very little authority. We read the news and think we can’t understand how the Republican Party can be in such disarray, but the party is not one thing; it’s made up of individuals and interest groups, all acting in their own interests, not necessarily in the interests of the party as a whole.”

The fragmentation within the parties has given voice to the more extreme groups in both parties, according to Dean Henry E. Brady, who studies elections and political polarization.

“The best social science suggests that the longterm causes of political polarization are growing inequality and increased immigration,” he says. “The 1950s through the 1970s were one of the least polarized eras in American politics, characterized by strong unions and corporations that had strong local roots and a sense of responsibility to their local areas. Globalization in the 1970s and 1980s led to rootless international corporations, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the diminution of union influence in the private sector, and increasing inequality. At the same time, immigration increased dramatically. The net result was increased inequality and anti-immigrant sentiment—with the two often conjoined in the sense that immigrants (or people like them in foreign countries) were blamed for taking away American jobs.”

This presidential election is also showing that Republican Party leadership has underestimated the degree of dissatisfaction people are feeling.

“Donald Trump has outflanked his party by combining strong anti-immigrant sentiment, nationalism, and xenophobia with opposition to free trade and attacks on hedge funds and Wall Street,” says Dean Brady. “If Donald Trump is the nominee, the party will undergo a big change,” adds Professor Anzia.

“If Trump is not the nominee, no one knows what is going to happen at the convention. No matter what, the last year is going to impact the Party. These voters are not just going to be upset for the moment and eventually just fall back in line.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Policy Notes.

A Place To Be

Alternatives to Unsanctioned Homeless Encampments

This Introduction to Policy Analysis (IPA) project was undertaken for the City of Oakland.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

Leading with Race in the Pacific Northwest

Last summer, I interned with Home Forward, the Portland area housing authority. The project I was hired on to help with was ambitious: I was tasked with creating an “Equity Platform” that defined equity for the agency and included suggestions for how to make equity more central to the agency’s work. Home Forward aspired to be more than a housing authority; in their words, they wanted to provide their residents with not just a home, but also “a path to success.” Home Forward already had a range of institutional practices in place aimed at equity: a committee for inclusive hiring practices and a fifteen-dollar starting wage, among others. But the agency wanted to expand these efforts and formalize them based on a specific platform.

In order to make recommendations to Home Forward, I interviewed employees of several other public agencies in the region. I found that over the last ten years, many had launched their own platforms that focus on equity through a specifically racial lens. Some of the activities that these agencies pursued include racial bias trainings for new hires, analyses of the ways in which agency policies affect people of color, and the inclusion of minority communities in decision-making processes. To these agencies, focusing their approach to equity on race was justifiable simply by reviewing the numbers. People of color are disproportionately represented in statistics on child poverty rates, income insecurity, low educational achievement, and unemployment rates, among many others.

A distinction soon became apparent between this race-focused approach and the approach that Home Forward appeared to be pursuing. My host agency envisioned a plan that ensured they could provide “paths to success” without leaving anybody behind. The issue of race was important to them, but rather than declare racial equity as an explicit goal, or use it as a framework for their practices, they appeared to see it as a byproduct.

Much of the inspiration and guidance for the focus on race in developing equity policies and platforms comes from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a project run out of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julie Nelson, GARE’s Director, has been the point-person for many of the projects in the Pacific Northwest, including the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). Started in 2004, RSJI has ensured that city employees receive training on racism and bias and has begun a “Community Roundtable” that convenes grass-roots organizations for input on city policies. RSJI’s work has led to several citywide changes, including increases in contracts with women and minority-owned businesses, and civic engagement in under-served minority neighborhoods.

Nelson describes GARE’s approach as “leading with race.” The motivation for this emphasis is GARE’s view that “colorblind” social policies put in place decades ago have not succeeded in eliminating institutional racism. On the contrary, people of color have historically been marginalized by these policies. Examples include race-neutral mortgage-lending practices, which have resulted in anti-Black discrimination, and race-neutral rules for patients with Medicare and Medicaid, which place disproportionate burden on people of color.[1]

GARE operates on the assumption that leading with race is the best way to achieve better results for society as a whole.

“When institutions are broken, they are broken for everyone,” Nelson said. “Institutional problems hurt everyone, but people of color are hurt first and hardest.” Issues faced by these communities of color, therefore, function as a sort of early warning that institutions are failing.

john a. powell, the Haas Institute’s Director, uses the term “targeted universalism” to describe this framework. The term refers to policies that are ultimately intended to improve broad outcomes for society as a whole, but which are designed with more immediate focus on obstacles preventing minority populations from realizing their goals. As powell says in his 2009 piece The Importance of Targeted Universalism:

Targeting within universalism means identifying a problem, particularly one suffered by marginalized people, proposing a solution, and then broadening its scope to cover as many people as possible. It sees marginalized populations in American society as the canary in the coal mine…It recognizes that problems faced by particular segments of American society are problems that could spill over into the lives of everyone, just as the Lower Ninth Ward was not the only part of New Orleans to suffer in the wake of Katrina. Likewise, the subprime credit crisis did not end in poor, urban communities, but has spread far beyond and has been felt throughout the global economy.

The “Ban the Box” initiative is a good example of how a campaign that began with a focus on racial justice can lead to positive outcomes for a broader population. The initiative calls for employers to eliminate questions about a candidate’s criminal history from initial job applications; defenders of racial justice and formerly incarcerated individuals started the movement in 2003, and it spread widely in West Coast governments and around the country. Critically, despite its focus on communities of color, the ban the box movement benefits all formerly incarcerated individuals, whether they are white or of color.

As the summer progressed, I began to understand GARE’s implementation processes and how Home Forward might apply them in crafting their own platform. GARE provides trainings on individual, institutional and structural racism, as well as concepts of implicit and explicit bias. While working with GARE, many agencies create racial equity tools that obligate policy makers to not only examine a policy in terms of the costs and benefits to people of color, but also to be aware of who is involved in the decision-making process.

For instance, in 2012, Multnomah County produced a toolkit for implementing racial equity practice called the “Equity and Empowerment Lens.” The document is meant to guide an agency through the process of assessing, analyzing, and ultimately improving equity practices. Examples of specific activities include questions prompting policy makers to consider the impact their policies have on communities of color; planning guides on how best to include community partners in their work; and suggestions for defining, measuring and reporting equity goals and their results.

When asked how their Equity and Empowerment Lens is put to use, Multnomah County employees point to the Cully Weatherization 2.0 project as an example. For this project, the County, the City of Portland, and several environmental organizations partnered with NGOs representing communities of color in the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods of northeast Portland. The project provided job training and employment to local residents, while “weatherizing” one hundred local homes. Weatherization means preserving affordable housing, while making homes more resilient to climate change, and healthier places to live. The project was designed within a conscious equity frame, in which project decisions were made with community input, and the power structure of the project’s implementation were discussed throughout.

GARE’s involvement in the region has also led to new departments, offices, and bureaus being created: the Office of Equity and Human Rights at the City of Portland; the Multnomah County Office of Diversity and Equity; the Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative; Metro’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion wing. To different degrees, these offices hold their host institution accountable for equity practices in human resources, procurement, policy design, and policy implementation.

As I learned more about these kinds of ways in which other agencies implemented equity practices with a focus on race, it was clear that my supervisors remained noncommittal. At meetings and in emails, they were careful to stress the “social” part of our equity planning while shying away from emphasis on race. The majority of Home Forward residents and voucher holders are white, so Home Forward did not want to be seen as abandoning them.

Home Forward employees were quick to recognize GARE’s success, and completely comfortable acknowledging both the region’s gaping racial disparities and the historical roots of racism in Oregon. Nonetheless, the idea of emphasizing race in the development of equity practices was met with discomfort; it appeared that, rather than seeing the ways in which a focus on race can generate policy solutions for a broader population, Home Forward saw instead the risk that they might simply alienate white residents and constituents.

Throughout the Portland area, GARE continues to seek out new institutions for partnerships. There is a sense of momentum and excitement around the new initiatives in the city’s agencies – even those whose initiatives have stalled or fallen behind. The bureaucratic process can be slow to create large-scale changes in communities and most of the visible successes so far have been small. It is true that small-scale change in the way a region is governed can add up over time, but it remains to be seen whether these agencies can approach the problem with the urgency it demands, and whether Home Forward will choose to lead with race.


Nereida Heller is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. This is her first article for Policy Matters Journal, where this was originally posted.