I grew up in a blue-collar middle-class family in Middletown, Ohio, once named an All-American City. My dad worked at the local steel factory as a machinist, and my mom was an office manager at the local orthodontist’s office. I had a good life growing up—we took vacations every year to Myrtle Beach, four kids and six suitcases crammed into a Chevy. We always had healthcare and didn’t really lack for anything. My parents were able to pay for me to go to a state college out of their own pocket. I worked only during winter and summer breaks, and that was basically so I would have money to spend on college life, not on college itself. I focused on my studies, graduated in four years and left college with zero debt.
Today, my story isn’t possible for a new generation. That steel factory, which once employed about half of the town’s workers, now has jobs for less than one-fifth. And the workers were locked out for about one year in the early 2000s. College tuition at my alma mater has nearly tripled since I graduated in 1993. My mom lost her job and now makes half of what she made before, and she was without healthcare for two years before becoming eligible for Medicare. Middletown, that once All-American City, was listed on Forbes’s Top 10 “Fastest-Dying Towns.”
All the factors that allowed my parents to give me a better life are gone. There are no good jobs anymore for folks without college degrees. Going to college requires taking on five-figure debt. So it’s no surprise to me that it is a new generation—the first to have the American dream pulled out from under them—that is finally spurring us all to question our nation’s path and the state of our democracy. Today’s millennials are directly experiencing the culmination of thirty years of political and economic inequality.
Today the average college grad leaves school with just over $24,000 in debt, an amount that eats up $276 every month if you stretch the payments out over ten years and it’s a government loan with a 6.8 percent interest rate. Of course, one out of five students also carries more costly private loans, where interest rates are in the double digits and fees add to the balance. This debt-for-diploma system is what counts as opportunity in America today. And it is animating much of the frustration and passion of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The debt-for-diploma system is just one of the many ways it has gotten harder for this generation to either work or educate their way into the middle class. A handmade sign at Zuccotti Park summed it up perfectly: “I went broke trying to become middle class.” Far too many of today’s twentysomethings are earning less than their parents did at the same age—a downward slide that was true even before the Great Recession left a jobless generation in its wake. Today, young men earn 90 cents for every dollar their fathers earned in 1980. Young women make more, about $1.16 for every dollar their mothers brought home in 1980—gains driven by better job prospects, more college degrees and longer working hours. But those overall trends mask a big divergence between the college haves and the college have-nots. Over the course of a generation, only young people with bachelor’s degrees have seen substantial increases in their earnings—cold comfort to the legions of twentysomethings struggling to pay back their student loans while working in jobs that don’t require a degree, or with no job at all.
This problem—downward economic mobility for a new generation—didn’t just happen. It was the inevitable outcome of thirty years of failed policies fueled by the needs and interests of major multinational corporations and an ever-expanding trove of rich and politically connected individuals. Our economic destiny was not predetermined by globalization or technological change; it was determined by how our political system—including both parties—responded to those major forces, or in some cases failed to respond. And that observation is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters (and the spinoff Occupy College movement) have so powerfully articulated. They fundamentally understand that we can’t rebuild the middle class until we fix our democracy so it works for the 99 percent of Americans.
There are plenty of good ideas for getting our nation back on track. And the best of them would squarely address the economic plight facing young people today. Right now, the government can borrow at negative real interest rates because investors are storming for Treasury bonds. Many people are calling for us to use this window of opportunity to invest in our crumbling infrastructure, but what about our stagnating human infrastructure? How can the government justify charging students nearly 7 percent while it charges the banks nothing and can itself borrow for less than nothing? Short of returning to a grant-based college aid system that restores the purchasing power of Pell grants, we should immediately reduce the federal student loan interest rate to a level lower than what the Fed offers banks through the discount window (currently less than 1 percent). It would provide immediate relief and send a strong signal that we the people are finally treating our children better than we treat banks.
Next, we need to address the double-digit unemployment rate for youth by directly putting young people to work. The president’s American Jobs Act includes a year-round youth jobs program, and it should be expanded to offer a job to every one of the unemployed and underemployed young people in this country. Our nation needs to deliver something big and bold so that this generation—and those that follow it—know that the country has not left them behind.
Also in This Forum
Sam Pizzigati: “OWS Revives the Struggle for Economic Equality”
Rinku Sen: “Race and Occupy Wall Street”
George Zornick: “How to Be a 1 Percenter”
Sarah Anderson: “The Costs of Wall Street Greed”
Gordon Lafer: “Why Occupy Wall Street Has Left Washington Behind”