Young Americans Under Siege

Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign had one major effect: It exposed what has become known as the “war on women,” the Republican right’s opposition to contraception, family planning and the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act. Too bad Santorum decided to suspend his campaign. If he had followed up on calling Obama a “snob” for encouraging students to go to college, he might have exposed the conservative war on the young.

Young people find themselves under siege. Youth unemployment for ages 16 to 24 is at Arab Spring levels — officially 16.5 percent. In public schools, children are being hit with teacher layoffs, bigger class sizes, less bus service, fees for sports and other extracurricular activities and less course offerings.

Colleges are raising tuitions and shorting aid programs. Student debt is greater than credit card debt, with Americans owing more than $1 trillion, with new graduates averaging over $25,000. And these students are graduating into the worst job market since the 1930s. Even if they find work, increasing numbers are forced by economic need to live with their parents.

And even their right to vote is under attack. Voters 18 to 25 turned out in large numbers for Barack Obama in 2008. Republican governors and state legislators — guided by the conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council — have pushed voter ID laws that make it harder for students to vote. The Brennan Center estimates that 5 million voters might be disqualified, many of them young people.

And it’s getting worse. In July, the interest rate on U.S. government-sponsored student loans is scheduled to double to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent. This will add thousands to the debt owed by today’s students, and to the cost of repaying that debt over time. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) has prepared legislation that would extend the 3.4 percent rate, paying for it by ending top end tax breaks — including those on corporate jets.

But House Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), seem intent on letting the rate double. Ryan’s budget proposal would force cuts in Pell grants and raise interest rates for students as it seeks to virtually eliminate anything in the government beyond the military, Social Security, Medicare and other health-care plans. Republicans are also intent on repealing health-care reform. The reform enables young people to be covered under their parents’ plans until age 26.

And parents often feel the pain when their children are afflicted. Parents stretch to provide support for their unemployed children, including living space those who can’t afford to live separately. Uninsured calamity often becomes a family sacrifice. Parents guarantee many of their children’s student loans. Americans over 60 owe a staggering $36 billion in student loans.

We can’t afford to lose this war on the young. Providing aid to states and localities to rehire teachers would help fuel the recovery and create about a million jobs. Direct public employment for the young in job corps and green corps would more than pay for itself in reduced crime, increased productivity and reduced incidence of drugs and depression. Providing free tuition for public college would cost an estimated $30 billion a year. A tax on destabilizing financial speculation could cover all of that. We have choices. This is still a rich nation. We can afford to invest in our kids. We simply have to choose.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.