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.