As I watched the drama leading up to the Senate and House votes this week on the so-called fiscal cliff, my mind kept turning to young people. In particular, the giant generation of “millennials,” those born in the 1980s and ’90s, who must be watching the spectacle in Washington with something less than awe and admiration. Whether you think of the roughly 64 million young men and women between the ages of 15 and 30, or the entire cohort of 100 million children, teens and young adults under 25 — the age one has to be to serve in Congress — it’s hard to believe these young people were a priority for the politicians.
It’s true that tax rates were raised on the wealthiest Americans, and that there were a few nips and tucks in the nation’s $3.5 trillion government expenditures for this fiscal year. But overall, any hope that Congress and the White House would agree on how to take a giant whack at the massive federal debt, was dashed on a heap of bitter name-calling. Republicans blame President Obama for not being willing to make serious cuts in spending; the White House points out that large budget cuts were made last year and that much of the over-spending comes as a result of two wars, a Medicare prescription drug plan and decade-old tax cuts that cost the government hundreds of billions in needed revenue.
Even if you argue that the country is obliged to take care of its aging seniors, the recipients of nearly $1.5 trillion in annual benefits through Social Security and Medicare (and by the way, I’m in that age group), it’s also important to ask why there isn’t more focus on America’s next generations. Either because of the government debt that continues to grow — and that will be the burden today’s young people have to address — or because of the fact that at least one in five children in the U.S. today live in poverty.
The latest report by the non-profit Children’s Defense Fund concluded that children are the poorest age group in America, and “the younger they are the poorer they are.”
The newly re-elected Speaker of the House said this Thursday after he was sworn in:
“The American Dream is in peril so long as its namesake is weighed down by this anchor of debt. Break its hold, and we begin to set our economy free. Jobs will come home. Confidence will come back.
“We do this not just to boost GDP or reduce unemployment, but to secure for our children a future of freedom and opportunity. Nothing is more important.”
Of course, Speaker John Boehner’s, or that of conservative Republicans, and President Obama’s vision of how to do that, are very different. We’ll see if they find any common ground in the weeks to come.
Right now, 23-year-old Nick Troiano, with the millennial group called “The Can Kicks Back,” sizes things up this way: “We believe politicians in Washington will continue to take the easy way out until an organized group large enough and loud enough demands otherwise. They all talk about doing what’s best for their children and grandchildren, but they are not listening to them.”
Troiano and his fellow millennials — who are allied with the non-partisan, adult “Fix the Debt” group — are adding new chapters around the country, using the events of this week as a recruiting tool. Let’s hope young people pay attention; they have a lot to gain and even more to lose.