When it comes to conversations about Millennials and the economy this election, there are countless articles on the college affordability and student loan debt crisis. Presidential candidates focus their sights on the college crisis when attempting to appeal to young voters—but as this NPR article notes, student debt is not always a campaign priority for Millennials. In fact, the majority of Millennials don’t even hold a college degree, but they now make up the largest share of the workforce.
With Millennials participating in the economy at such high rates, which issues will impact them the most this upcoming election? What economic issues should they prioritize this voting season? From the sweeping shock of inequality throughout our economic system as a whole, to threats to organized labor and workplace protections, to a living wage and affordable child care, there’s a wealth of economic concerns Millennials should care about in addition to the college affordability and student loan debt crisis. Here’s why:
The broadening wealth gap gets tossed around by candidates as a conversation piece—“the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer”—but what, exactly, does economic inequality look like in practice? How does it impact Millennials in particular? In essence, it encapsulates nearly every issue on this list—from unlivable wages and a dearth of workplace protections for the lay employee, to the growing threat to low-income women’s access to safe and unbiased reproductive care. Economic inequality looks like America’s vanishing middle class. It looks like the massive disparity in wealth between white people and people of color, where the typical Black household owns just 6 percent of the wealth of a typical white household, and the typical Hispanic household owns just 8 percent. It looks like the college student who graduates into a stagnant labor market with, on average, $35,000 in student loan debt. This election, Millennials need to pay attention to real policy solutions that dismantle the systematically unequal economic system.
Student Debt and College Affordability
It’s true: When it comes to political conversations about young people, Millennials get pigeonholed into talks about the soaring cost of college and student loan debt. And while the majority of Millennials may not hold a college degree, for the 40 million people who do, the cost can be crushing. Beyond the personal toll, the country’s $1 trillion student debt total is a public blight, holding many young graduates back from key milestones that benefit the economy (i.e. buying a house.) The reasons why the majority of Millennials lack a college education may also be telling: According to a Pew Center study, 75 percent of Americans believe college is too expensive for most Americans to afford, while 57 percent believe higher education is not worth the current price tag.
Affordable Child Care
The cost of child care is soaring, while wages remain stagnant. According to a report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), there were more than 16 million Millennial mothers in 2014, and the average cost of full-time child care for an infant under 12 months clocks in at $18,000 a year—more than an entire annual minimum wage income. What’s the connection? Millennials make up 70 percent of all minimum wage earners, meaning a significant portion of Millennial parents are struggling financially to provide for their children. Better child care tax credits can help ameliorate the financial struggle of many young parents, helping foster healthy cognitive development, better social skills, and improved health among the nation’s children and allowing Millennial parents to participate fully in the work force.
One need look no further than the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to see the impact of environmental racism: Thousands have been exposed to dangerously high lead contamination in their tap water, leading to severe illness and even death in some cases, in a city with a majority low-income, Black population. The catalyst to Flint’s water crisis was economically motivated: City officials made a hasty switch to Flint River as the city’s water source in an effort to save millions of dollars, at the expense of residents’ health. As Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has observed, “It’s a minority community, it’s a poor community, and voices were not being heard. And that’s a part of this problem.”
Threats to Unionization and Worker Benefits
Public sector unions are weathering a major threat with the Supreme Court Case Friedrichs v. California Teacher’s Association, and while Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing may actually have saved public sector unions—and all the important workplace protections they offer employees, union members or not—for the time being, that’s not quite a foregone conclusion. Though Millennial union membership is relatively low, the trend of dismantling unions doesn’t bode well for workplace protections outside of union work. If organized labor can’t even maintain basic employee benefits, how will unorganized labor fare? For Millennial workers who already struggle to secure access to health care, sick leave, maternity leave and more, this election is especially crucial.
As the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Living Wage Calculator demonstrates, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place in the United States where the minimum wage constitutes a living wage—that is, one that adequately covers housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, and other living expenses for a family. The Fight for $15 movement—the organized effort of low-income fast food workers to raise the minimum wage to a living wage—has been gaining traction, and major cities like Los Angeles and Seattle have vowed to raise the minimum wage to $15, while New York is close to a statewide $15 minimum wage boost. Still, the majority of low-income workers across the United States deal with a large discrepancy between the living wage and the minimum wage, working long hours and sacrificing their health in order to get by. For Millennials, this issue rings especially true, as they constitute 70 percent of all minimum wage earners.