A Sleeping Class


Scenes from a would-be revolution: On April 5, Maryland state legislators viewed a documentary, Bob & Me, starring Timothy Daly, the 22-year-old student government president of the University of Maryland. Modeled on Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the film features a similarly zaftig Daly pursuing Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich for answers about his $120 million cut to the university system’s budget and tuition hikes of 34 to 54 percent in the last four years.

“We wanted to hold these people accountable for what they are doing,” says Daly, who graduated two weeks ago with over $30,000 in debt. “Over the years students have been a very apathetic group. We’re starting to get a lot more involved now, and it’s a very exciting time.”

Bob & Me doesn’t confront only Maryland politicians; it’s a lone signal flare over dark waters, challenging 18-to 34-year-olds nationwide to start sticking up for themselves. Not for a decade have politicians made a serious effort to address young people as voters, and in that time they’ve really put the screws to us, cutting student aid, standing by while education costs soar and more and more of us scrape by without health insurance or a permanent job. The response, from the “Rock the Vote” generation, has been . . . nothing. Less voting, more apathy, and little in the way of protest beyond the occasional sit-in when student activity fees go up. At this rate, we’re more likely to save the redwoods than ourselves.

Frustratingly few young people seem to recognize their shared interests across the lines of class, education level, and ethnicity. Now, in this election season, a few people have stopped hitting the snooze button. Josh Green, a 25-year-old Harvard grad student, co-founded the 2020 Democrats in 2002. His 1,500-member group is working on long-range policy ideas while raising generational consciousness. “We’ve started to wake up to the fact that the baby boom generation is saddling us with an extraordinary set of problems,” he says. “They’re enriching themselves with tax cuts, and if we don’t make our voices heard, we’re literally going to be paying the bills. I would say that besides class and race, there’s starting to be a generational cleavage in this country.”

The numbers back Josh up. Tuition at public colleges is up 47 percent since 1993, and the increase is landing disproportionately on students’ shoulders. Grants used to make up half of all school aid; now they make up just over 40 percent. The average undergraduate debt in 2002 was $18,900. Right now, the picture is getting yet worse: Republican lawmakers are talking about saving money by eliminating the low guaranteed rates students lock in when they consolidate unbearable debt. Variable rates put borrowers at the mercy of the market, and by some estimates individuals would pay $5,484 more in interest on a typical $17,000 loan. Hitting seniors in their pockets like that would cause a revolt.

Most cruelly, young people are incurring these unprecedented levels of debt in order to gain admission to a world of middle-class comfort that may not be waiting for them, now or ever. As this year’s grads step off the commencement stage, they face the highest unemployment rate of any age group, and are the most likely to be popping echinacea in lieu of a health plan; their average $2,000-plus credit-card debt will stick with them longer than Petrarch’s sonnets.

Why don’t young people yet realize they constitute a class at a systemic disadvantage? Luis Gomez and Eddy Rivera are working on it. They’re student organizers for the Student Liberation Action Movement at Hunter College, which until recently dominated student government there. SLAM! protests the painful fee hikes City University of New York schools have seen in the past few years, advocating for the right to an education. “More and more of the people we’re trying to reach, those directly affected, are the ones not here: the students who can’t afford it,” says Rivera.

A militant and vocal minority at the school, SLAM! activists are sometimes seen as kooks by the very students they champion. “Many people support the cause even if they have the means to an education—they see their friends dropping out for a semester to save the cash to go back next semester,” says Gomez. “But most of our students just want to graduate. They’re commuter students, hustling, single parents.” The more young people have on their minds, the less time they have to do something about it.

There is no clear line anymore between “college” and “non-college” youth. College students are more likely to be struggling counter girls than spoiled frat boys (cough—George W.—cough). Today’s students are older—nearly half are over 25—and more diverse than ever. They are more likely to be employed—69 percent in 1995 versus 36 percent in 1973—and they work more hours than in previous decades. Because of higher fees, more students attend school part-time or take two-year degrees. The average time to a bachelor’s degree for those who start at two-year schools is almost six years.

Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign estimates that in the past three years 220,000 people nationwide were not able to afford public universities. The Community College League of California estimates 165,000 in that state passed up enrollment or dropped out.

The Young Workers Project at Berkeley’s Labor Center notes that McDonald’s is the nation’s largest youth employer, and that young workers aged 16 to 24 are both the most likely to be in poverty and the least likely to be unionized.

So, OK, maybe the community-college kids are just too tired. Where’s everybody else? Young people who are not climbing up out of poverty, but who are still feeling the sting of Bush syndrome—high tuition, big debt, no jobs, no health insurance, no housing—haven’t exactly been building a movement of their own. We’re plenty active in everyone else’s, but we’ve been conditioned not to see our personal financial problems as political.

Leslie Cagan, of the major anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice, says her steering committee reserves a fifth of its slots for students and people under 25, just as it reserves space for people of color and sexual minorities. “If there’s not a strong involvement with young people, that weakens the whole movement,” she says. “We take them very, very seriously.”

Yet Cagan suspects that pragmatic causes like education funding and health insurance make the official agenda but get short shrift because of the left’s skittishness about class issues. “I don’t think our movement pays enough attention to class,” she says. “It’s an unmentionable in our society in general. And people who are activists have a lot of other demands on their time and attention.”

Young progressives tend to be compelled toward global causes, away from what they might see as narrow self-interest. Each year, for example, Mother Jones magazine honors the top 10 activist campuses in the nation. From 2001 to 2003, the list featured campaigns involving free speech, the war in Iraq, AIDS, the drug war, and a living wage. Completely absent were issues like loan rates, debt burden, health insurance, and the dearth of entry-level jobs. No one’s getting 30,000 people to march down Broadway to restore cuts in Pell grants, or to force the creation of affordable urban housing for young families.

David Weinberg works at Hunter College for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which mobilizes students on issues they select themselves, from tuition hikes to lead poisoning. “In my experience, while it’s fairly easy to get a lot of students doing something around higher education,” he says, “students who make more of a commitment . . . have a tendency to want to work on campaigns beyond the very personal.”

Hunter College also happened to be the site of the national Campus Antiwar Network’s April conference. Vassar student Emily Goldstein, a member of the network’s national coordinating committee, says protesting global war was the biggest, most important cause she could devote herself to. “We are part of a student movement, but we are also part of a much larger movement,” she says. “Mostly I just think of myself as a person standing up against something that I believe is incredibly wrong.” Goldstein says economic activism is “limited” on her small, elite campus. This is true even though tuition at Vassar is among the highest in the nation at $29,095, and half her classmates are on financial aid, graduating with an average debt of $18,729. Goldstein faces an uncertain job market, but she’s more interested in army recruitment on campus and the abuse of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Which is all fine and admirable, but the fact remains that the social safety net in this country, now in tatters, was built through enlightened self-interest, by workers and women and retirees, not by people fighting for causes a world away. If young people don’t march on their own behalf, who will march for them?

Students get this in London, where 31,000 rallied last October against changes in school fees. In both the U.K. and Canada, public-university unions have been a formidable lobbying force for decades. The Canadian Federation of Students represents 450,000 people; the U.K.’s National Union of Students, 5 million. These groups deal with issues like diversity and date rape along with tuition, housing, health care, debt, and jobs. They win battles for their constituencies, keeping young people on the social welfare agenda. Throughout the 1990s, the CFS has won extended tuition freezes and even tuition cuts in several Canadian provinces.

The United States Student Association, the nation’s oldest and largest student organization, by contrast, has a few hundred thousand members. It lobbies for increases in federal aid and better access to higher education. Yet its clout is dwarfed by that of the big student loan companies—it spent $20,000 on lobbying in 2000, as opposed to $1.5 million spent by Sallie Mae.

Without a unified voice, individual protests can do little more than make splashes. For the past two years, 8,000 to 10,000 students at California’s community colleges have marched to Sacramento to protest a 120 percent rise in fees and budget cuts in the hundreds of millions. New York’s CUNY schools, led by SLAM! and other groups, have seen similar, though smaller, protests recently, including a 565-mile march across the state last year. “I think that community-college students are finally standing up for themselves,” says Scott Lay, an organizer with the Community College League of California. “When I was a student activist [in the 1990s], we were lucky to get 500 to a rally.” Yet these protests are still sporadic, still based on acute threats rather than a widespread understanding of young people’s interests. Without stronger institutions, this little wave of youth energy will crest and disappear, as have many before it.

Public-university students of greater means are getting into the political game in a more permanent way, forming groups that may play stronger roles in the future. The $8,000 budget for Daly’s film in Maryland came from his state political action committee, the Student Citizens Action Network. The PAC’s lobbying won passage of a bill capping tuition increases at 5 percent a year and mandating a bottom-line level of education funding, and members are currently marshaling support for an override to the governor’s expected veto.

The idea for a student PAC started in neighboring Virginia, where in 2002, students at William and Mary formed Students of Virginia to help pass a $900 million bond issue for higher education. Last summer, the coalition, now called 21st Century Virginia, or VA21, went statewide. “We’re trying to find a way to support mainstream, bipartisan, middle-of-the-road issues that affect all of us on a day-to-day basis,” says Jesse Ferguson, the 23-year-old executive director. This month saw passage of a budget with $218 million more for higher education, the first increase in years. Funded with contributions from the likes of Philip Morris’s corporate owner, the group draws on its 14,000 members for letter-writing campaigns and rallies, but also employs Ferguson as a full-time lobbyist to drive home its message about budget priorities.

Ferguson says he wouldn’t turn down the chance to take VA21 national if offered funding, in a young, wired equivalent of the AARP. “There’s a change you can see in recent years in 18- to 24-year-olds—they would rather have a seat at the table than a rally outside,” Ferguson says. “It’s got to be not just student activism but effective student activism.”

In the end, building an effective movement for this generation, and getting that seat at the table, will come down to the “click” moments.

Just as the early feminists realized their fights over dishes and diapers had a larger significance, so will young people need to realize, through a chain of small, firecracker-like epiphanies, that their personal woes are related to systemic problems and require systemic solutions. In this, they can take a leaf from other ongoing struggles. Evan Wolfson, executive director of the gay and lesbian rights organization Freedom to Marry, says overcoming isolation is the first priority. “Unlike other oppressed groups, gays and lesbians don’t necessarily start out having connections to people in their group, and maybe can’t even turn to their friends and family. So reaching out, using the tools of democracy that exist, like organizations and the Web, is very important. The camaraderie gives each person a sense of empowerment.”

Sara Horowitz agrees that building a constituency is the first step for a new social justice movement. Horowitz is the founder of Working Today, which does legislative advocacy on issues facing workers outside the corporate safety net. “A lot of [freelancers] start thinking they don’t know how to save or they have irresponsible spending habits,” she says. “They hear these messages that they’re spoiled dilettantes and should get real jobs. . . . Our number one policy goal is to get people to see that a set of policies were voted in that have left them out.” Stop blaming yourself, in other words, and start getting even.

Modeled more on a union than a typical think tank, Working Today offers practical solutions: group rates for health insurance provided directly to 4,000 freelancers and independent contractors in the New York area through its Freelancers’ Union. Of the total base of 40,000 members of partner organizations, Horowitz estimates that up to a quarter are between the ages of 20 and 30.

The group is working toward nothing less than a new New Deal. “How can we start having policies that make sure that people have health care, pensions, and quality of life?” Horowitz says. “This generation coming into their twenties now, unless things really radically change, should be expecting to work through their sixties and seventies in part-time jobs. They’re the first generation since WW II that won’t have pensions.” And if we don’t open our eyes soon to our own precarious position and our own power to change it, we’re going to be dining on dog food sooner rather than later.