By Carla M. Flink (University of Texas at San Antonio) and Angel Luis Molina, Jr. (Arizona State University)
Strike up a conversation about politics with a friend, relative, or colleague, and you’d be hard pressed to surprise them by noting the increasing diversity in the demographic face of the United States. You might also argue that this population shift is important because it is changing the political landscape—the presence of demographic change in America is well noted by political pundits and casual observers alike. The American public now finds itself inundated with a flood of election media coverage and, almost inescapably, claims about how the electoral prospects of one candidate or another hinge upon the voting choices of historically underrepresented groups. On the governance side, these claims are important because many believe (or certainly hope) that some policymakers, be they aspiring or incumbent, are more likely to support policies that can improve the outcomes of which minorities care about the most.
The popular concerns and claims about population change notwithstanding, the factors that determine whether and under what conditions policymakers who we expect will improve the lives of minorities actually do so, are far from common knowledge. And in the broader body of research that focuses on such motivating factors, there is much room for improvement. The assumption that has dominated the urban politics and policy scene is that policy officials who are minorities themselves will work to support minority communities at all times.
The hard truth is that things don’t always unfold as expected. And in many cases, there is a gap between the policies that are advanced by policymakers of whom much is expected, and the hopes that some minority communities had of those policymakers in the first place. What is responsible for this disconnect? And when minority public officials don’t break the bank in favor of minority interests, why don’t they? Given this, the portrait of urban policymakers – and the circumstances under which they work to promote the interests of minority groups – is primed for a new perspective.
In our most recent study, we shed light on this puzzle by studying the factors that influence how programs that benefit minority clientele are funded at a local level. By accounting for how poor or favorable certain outcomes are for minorities, the number of minority citizens, along with the presence of minority officials in charge of shaping these outcomes, we set out to provide a new and improved account of the “how” – and more importantly the “when” – the presence of elected representation should matter for budgetary decisions.
At the heart of demographic changes in the US is the Latino population. Latinos now account for an increasingly large share of the US population. In America’s public schools, Latinos are becoming the largest minority and, in fact, already dominate the demographics of school systems like Texas and California. Of the various policies intended to improve the educational attainment of this growing, but often academically lagging, group of students, bilingual education has been at the core. Using funding for bilingual education in Texas school districts as their empirical case, the authors distinguish themselves from existing studies by advancing a theoretical story that describes how and why certain policy makers display different responses to varying levels of need and demand in the communities they serve.
Largely taken for granted by the body of public administration, policy, and minority politics research that creates this study’s backdrop, the authors set out to convince their audience that policy need and demand are not only conceptually distinct, but that this distinction also has significant practical implications. More than a purely theoretical account, using data from a large set of public school districts, the authors find evidence that the presence of Latino school board members influences the amount of money allocated for bilingual education contingent upon the need and demand of Latino students in their district.
From the vantage point of those concerned with improving minority outcomes, this means that the perks of having a minority overseeing budgetary and potentially other policy-related decisions come to fruition when minorities are low in their numbers and are experiencing poor outcomes. Or, stated differently, in situations when they could use the most help.
Carla M. Flink is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio in the Department of Public Administration. She received a PhD in Political Science from Texas A&M University specializing in public budgeting, public administration, and public policy. Her work has been published in journals such as the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory and Policy Studies Journal. For more on Dr. Flink’s work, please visit her website at: http://carlaflink.weebly.com.
Angel Luis Molina, Jr. is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Organization Research and Design in the School of Public Aﬀairs at Arizona State University. He received a PhD in Political Science from Texas A&M University with an emphasis on public administration and policy, as well as race and ethnic politics. His research has appeared in various journal including Regional Science Policy & Practice, and Politics, Groups, and Identities among others. For more on Dr. Molina’s work, please visit his website at: angellmolinajr.com.