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We Are All in This Together

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The greatest generation of America's last century survived the Great Depression, fought and defeated global tyranny, built the great American middle class, and so much more. And, as America's growing numbers of senior citizens hit retirement age in increasing numbers, they are deeply concerned about the next generation's future. Recent polling shows that senior citizens believe that, by a 61-20 percent margin, that the lives of children over the past 10 years have become somewhat or much worse rather than better.

Baby Boomers also worry about recent federal budget proposals, such as that passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that would dramatically cut programs for children. In fact, by wide margins, those over the age of 64 believe there should be no reductions to most children's programs rather than major reductions in order to reduce the federal deficit. Those margins are 49-12 percent in favor of protecting public education, 52-12 percent for child nutrition, 48-12 percent for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), 45-18 percent for Head Start, and 39-17 percent in favor of protecting student loans.

Senior citizens are deeply concerned about America's future and are rightfully concerned that America's children are growing up to face enormous challenges. They know the time is now to begin preparing them to face those problems.

Unfortunately, over 1 in 5, or 22 percent, of our nation's children now live in poverty, and there are over 3 million more children living in poverty today than when the recession started. In a First Focus analysis of data from past recessions, it is clear that children who fall into poverty, even for a brief period of time, will fare far worse along a range of variables than will their peers who did not fall into poverty.

According to the report:

They will live in households with lower incomes, they will earn less themselves, and they have a greater chance at living in or near poverty as adults. They will achieve lower levels of education, and they will be less likely to be gainfully employed. Children who experience recession-induced poverty will even have poorer health than their peers who stayed out of poverty during the childhood recession.

The life-long consequences for children in terms of opportunity, education, poverty, health, and the ability to fulfill their God-given potential are disturbing for the current generation of children and youth. Furthermore, the repercussions for our nation's future are immense.

In Stephen Marche's recent Esquire article, "The War Against Youth," he highlights that how our nation's youth and young adults are already struggling in some key, consequential ways. Higher education costs are growing and are increasingly unaffordable for low-income young adults, the student debt burden is growing dramatically, the vast majority of college graduates have had to work unpaid internships, and worst of all, young adults are finding a workplace that is paying lower wages, if they can find work at all.

According to Marche:

Everyone currently emerging into the workplace will be economically scarred for life by the misfortune of their timing. The initial wage loss for a worker emerging in a bad economy is 6 to 7 percent for every 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, which means a twenty-one-year-old starting a job today makes about 24 percent less than he or she would have five years ago. After fifteen years, even during the good times, the wage loss still hovers at around 2.5 percent.

Hope Yen of the Associated Press further underscores this problem. As she writes, "About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years."

These compounding problems of increasing poverty, higher education costs, increased debt, youth and young adult unemployment, and lower wage jobs are created a crisis that requires focused attention from our nation's leaders. As Marche concludes, "The deal they were promised, that if you work hard and make smart choices you will have a good life, is not working out."

Unfortunately, in an analysis of the Republican presidential debates, of the over 1,000 questions asked by moderators in the debates, children's issues have been largely ignored -- unless, of course, you think that Newt Gingrich's suggestion that poor children should serve as janitors in schools is some sort of solution to all of this.

Meanwhile, young adults have had to move back in with their parents in increasing numbers. According to Marche:

Currently the average American parent spends 10 percent of his or her annual income on their adult children, regardless of income. Meanwhile, one in four young Americans recently moved back home with their parents after living apart. Calling them the Boomerang generation implies that it's the irresponsible, feckless children who don't have it together enough to leave the nest. But many children who live at home have jobs.

In light of this data, Marche makes a very strong case that youth should be the top issue of the 2012 election. Unfortunately, he also makes some intergenerational conflict arguments that are detrimental to the cause. He argues that the problems for youth are caused because "the old are eating the young at the dinner table" even if "nobody wanted this."

While groups representing seniors, such as Generations United, were quick to condemn this rhetoric and defend Social Security as important to both senior citizens and children (and it is), what is disappointing is that many of them also chose to discount or dismiss the enormous problems that our nation's young people are confronting.

First, it is a fact that, as Marche points out, "The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget." The reason is that Social Security and Medicare provide senior citizens with a strong and critically important safety net of income and health assistance in retirement. These programs are enormous success stories, as the uninsured and poverty rates for seniors have plummeted dramatically since their inception. No need to run from that fact.

The point is that what is missing for children is a similarly strong safety net. For example, if Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is supposed to be for children what Social Security is for the elderly, the analogy is a very sad one, as TANF has failed low-income children and families in this recession and has left 22 percent of our nation's children mired in poverty. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "TANF benefit levels are so low that they are not sufficient in any state to raise a family's income above 50 percent of the poverty line."

While our nation may not be "eating the young," Marche is correct that neglecting their growing plight will reap long-term negative lifetime consequences for all. In fact, one of those consequences is that economic hardship among young Americans weakens both the Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds. As Richard (RJ) Eskow writes, "This year's slight downturn in Medicare and Social Security finances was caused by the financial crisis of 2008, as lost jobs and wages led to lost revenue for the program." This highlights the interdependence of the generations and that, yes, we are all in this together.

So, how do we respond? Dismissing the problem is not an answer. As an example, in response to Marche's stated concern that economic difficulties are forcing young adults to move back home, Generations United says, "Marche asserts today's youth are on their own; he sees young people returning home as a negative. But that's what families do: take care of their own in times of need."

So, that's it? We should just all move in together?

Hopefully we can do better than that. President Obama should be credited, for example, for speaking out on rising college costs and the affordability of college loans. And, we should look to both the Labour and Tory parties in the U.K. who, unlike the U.S., have comprehensive agendas and effort to address child poverty and well-being.

Beyond poverty, a number of groups like the Forum for Youth Investment, National Collaboration for Youth, Young Invincibles, Demos, Kentucky Youth Advocates, United Way, First Focus, and others have a number of recommendations on issues related to a comprehensive agenda related to the economy and jobs, education and college access, health care, family economics, and raising a family.

In the end, we are all in this together.

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