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Hullabaloo


Monday, December 05, 2011

 
Why are young people so upset and disenchanted?

by David Atkins

I spent much of Saturday registering voters at the Dem booth at Oxnard's tamale festival. Turnout was great, and we had a pretty successful day registering voters and recruiting volunteers. Keep in mind that registering voters in California doesn't matter much at all for the Presidential election, but matters a great deal for the Congress and the California Legislature, since Oxnard lies within three districts (Assembly, State Senate, and Congress) that are much more Democratic now due to redistricting. That in turn matters for winning 2/3 control of the California Legislature, which will finally enable progressive budgets in the state.

But over and over again, it was nearly impossible to convince young people to register to vote. Getting young people involved is always hard, of course, but youth apathy about elections is especially high right now:

Not since 1972 has generation played such a significant role in voter preferences as it has in recent elections. Younger people have voted substantially more Democratic in each election since 2004, while older voters have cast more ballots for Republican candidates in each election since 2006.

At the same time, the polling identifies potential fissures at both ends of the age spectrum that may affect these patterns. Older Republican-oriented voters, unlike younger people, rate Social Security as a top voting issue. While they favor the GOP on most issues, this is not the case for Social Security. Younger Democratic-leaning voters continue to support Obama at much higher levels than do older generations. But Obama’s job ratings have fallen steeply among this group, as well as among older generations, since early 2009. Perhaps more ominously for Obama, Millennials are much less engaged in politics than they were at this stage in the 2008 campaign.

A new Pew Research Center study suggests this pattern may well continue in 2012. Millennial voters are inclined to back President Barack Obama by a wide margin in a potential matchup against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, while Silent generation voters are solidly behind Romney. Baby Boomers and Generation X voters, who are the most anxious about the uncertain economic times, are on the fence about a second term for Obama.


But it's not hard to figure out why. Even if they don't know the details, young adults understand that they're getting screwed. A brief look at the federal budget numbers can tell you why:

In fiscal year 2010, the federal government spent $3.5 trillion, amounting to 24 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While the level of 2010 expenditures — as a share of GDP — exceeds those of recent years, the composition of the budget largely resembles the patterns of recent years. Of that $3.5 trillion, almost $2.2 trillion was financed by federal tax revenues. The remaining $1.3 trillion was financed by borrowing; this deficit will ultimately be paid for by future taxpayers. (See box for the recession’s impact on the budget.) As shown in the graph below, three major areas of spending each make up about one-fifth of the budget:

Defense and security: In 2010, some 20 percent of the budget, or $705 billion, paid for defense and security-related international activities. The bulk of the spending in this category reflects the underlying costs of the Department of Defense and other security-related activities. The total also includes the cost of supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which totaled $170 billion in 2010.
Social Security: Another 20 percent of the budget, or $707 billion, paid for Social Security, which provided retirement benefits averaging $1,175 per month to 34.6 million retired workers in December 2010. Social Security also provided benefits to 2.9 million spouses and children of retired workers, 6.4 million surviving children and spouses of deceased workers, and 10.2 million disabled workers and their eligible dependents in December 2010.
Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP: Three health insurance programs — Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) — together accounted for 21 percent of the budget in 2010, or $732 billion. Nearly two-thirds of this amount, or $452 billion, went to Medicare, which provides health coverage to around 47 million people who are over the age of 65 or have disabilities. The remainder of this category funds Medicaid and CHIP, which in a typical month in 2010 will provide health care or long-term care to about 60 million low-income children, parents, elderly people, and people with disabilities. Both Medicaid and CHIP require matching payments from the states.

Two other categories together account for another fifth of federal spending:
Safety net programs: About 14 percent of the federal budget in 2010, or $496 billion, went to support programs that provide aid (other than health insurance or Social Security benefits) to individuals and families facing hardship.



Let's keep in mind what this says about our federal budget: out of a $3.5 trillion budget, $1.135 trillion of that goes to social services programs that benefit only people over the age of 65. $875 billion of the remaining $2.36 trillion goes into the military--not including black ops or veterans benefits. Include the 7% (approximately $245 billion) spent on veterans' benefits, and military spending is $1.12 trillion. Now you're down to $1.24 trillion.

Safety net programs for the poor, such as SSI and food stamps, account for about $490 billion--which, important as they are, assist less than 1 in 7 Americans. Children's health insurance and Medicaid come to another $280 billion. Now we're down to just $630 billion for everything else.

But wait, we're not done. We still have to pay interest on the debt now. That comes to about 6% of the budget, or about $210 billion a year.

Which leaves a whopping total of $420 billion federal dollars for every other expenditure and investment in America: education, jobs programs, technology, NASA, medicine, federal law enforcement, the whole deal.

Just $420 billion. Just over a third of what is spent on programs for the elderly alone--money which, thanks to the caterwauling of the establishment press, most young people think won't be there for them when they reach that age.

None of this is to say that Medicare or Social Security should be cut. On the contrary. If anything, they should be expanded. But programs for the the poor and elderly don't constitute an investment in society, so much as societal maintenance. These are the things we as a caring and just people do for groups who would otherwise be left behind in poverty and misery. Military spending is, of course, a whole other story. An institution designed to preserve the integrity of the nation and dissuade foreign attacks is now used as an imperial police force.

But as important as these things are, they don't propel society forward in the way that investment in public works, education, jobs, and advances in technology and medicine do. Those are also the sort of investments visibly and immediately aid the working population between the ages of 18-65, 85% of whom don't directly receive safety net benefits.

The failure of the nation to make greater direct investments in jobs and education even as our citizens suffer the burden of high unemployment and massive student loans, is simply unconscionable. It's the sign of a sick society that has forgotten what made it great in the first place, and is just hanging on for dear life.

Given that older Americans increasingly vote overwhelmingly Republican, and that conservatives are engaged in a battle to wedge middle class America from the 15% of Americans receiving federal safety net benefits, it would seem to be a no-brainer that Democrats and progressives would want to promise heavy investment in the middle-class workforce aged 18-65.

And yet vanishingly little of our public rhetoric, to say nothing of our public resources, is devoted to the subject.

Young adults can sense that. The election of Barack Obama was supposed to change the conversation and the public policy. But belated changes to student loans, and the ability to stay on parents' health insurance until the age of 26 is thin gruel for a campaign that promised change people could believe in. Voting and politics is a much older person's game these days. The proof, after all, is in the numbers.


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