- The Washington Times
Monday, February 20, 2012

Second of two parts

After the Great Recession swept through the global economy and crushed the job prospects and financial security of millions of young people, thousands took to the streets in the past year from Cairo and Moscow to Washington and Wall Street to demand a new economic and political order.

The protests are not just the products of bleak job prospects for younger workers. Many also point to the stark contrast with the wealthy and contented ruling classes, groups that have been largely untouched by the global economic debacle or have received government bailouts without being forced to change the policies and practices that helped create the crisis.

Youth unemployment in most of the world hovers at about 20 percent — more than three times the rate for older adults in most nations, according to the International Labor Organization.

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring uprisings started a little more than a year ago, 46 percent of people with college degrees lack jobs in their fields. In Egypt, 325,000 university graduates a year enter the job market, where few good opportunities are available.

Youth unemployment ranges as high as 49 percent in Nigeria and 40 percent in Spain and Greece, where protests have turned violent in reaction to government austerity programs. In the U.S., the official unemployment rate among 16- to 24-year-olds is 19 percent, but the real rate — including workforce dropouts — is closer to 25 percent.

“With such numbers of young people feeling left out of their own future, youth protest is on the rise” and is gathering steam in the U.S. after starting overseas in the Middle East and Europe, said Costas Panayotakis, a sociology professor at the City University of New York.

He visited Greece last summer to observe the increasingly confrontational demonstrations there against the austerity program imposed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund as a condition of receiving loans and debt relief.

Mr. Panayotakis sees economic pressures as the main driving force behind the worldwide demonstrations, and the lack of democracy in many nations has only “added to the pain.”

The austerity burden

The youth-based protests have intensified as governments have joined with business interests in slashing worker pay and benefits in places such as Athens, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

Recession-wary businesses have been loath to create full-time positions that provide health care and retirement benefits, so younger workers are accepting part-time jobs and contract employment with no benefits or job security. Many are offered low-paid or unpaid internships or “traineeships” instead of jobs.

Many of the jobless and underemployed youths around the world are highly educated. Even in fast-growing countries such as China, which managed to avoid a deep downturn as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the number of college graduates is growing more rapidly than the labor market can absorb. An estimated 5 million young Chinese graduates reportedly can’t find jobs.

“Youth protests are not likely to subside anytime soon,” because the political and economic systems are not providing the jobs they need and, in many cases, are making employment prospects worse rather than better, Mr. Panayotakis said.

Governments, seeking to shed mountains of unsustainable debt, have been adding to the burden on youths by making higher education — a requirement but not a guarantee for middle-class jobs — more expensive and harder to obtain. In Britain and other European countries, university degrees that were once free now come with fees.

The cost of college education in the U.S. has grown at twice the inflation rate even as average incomes shrank by 6 percent, forcing students to take on record levels of debt. At $830 billion, student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds credit card debt.

The protesters say such economic pressures are unfair in a society that continues to lavish benefits on those who are wealthier and more fortunate, Mr. Panayotakis said.

“The rich get bailouts designed to rescue the value of stock and bonds, and youth get much higher tuition fees for an education that is declining in quality as budget cuts take a bite,” he said.

Rich and poor

Antonya Huntenburg, a 21-year-old student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in the District, said economic pressures on everyone she knows, including her parents and her younger friends, prompted her to join the Occupy D.C. protest in McPherson Square this year.

“I lost my apartment. I feel largely homeless,” despite having two jobs tutoring students and helping out at the Corcoran Gallery to try to make ends meet, she said on a recent cold, cloudy day amid the tents in the downtown square. “So I came here to be safe.”

Ms. Huntenburg’s parents in the New York area can’t be of help. Her father lost his job three years ago during the recession.

“I don’t blame them. It’s really just hard times,” she said. “A lot of kids in school drop out because they don’t have any money.”

Ms. Huntenburg said she feels fortunate because the Corcoran provided scholarships for much of her schooling. She has had to finance about $30,000 with student loans, while a close friend of hers is saddled with $100,000 in debt and others are trying to hold down three jobs to get through school.

“I think that’s why this movement attracts a lot of young people,” she said. “People are really struggling. They get angry” when they see rich people get huge bonuses while their peers are scraping to come up with money for food and subway fares, she said.

Among the Washington establishment groups the Occupy movement has protested are the Alfalfa Club, which holds a dinner for an exclusive group in Washington every year; financial management company Merrill Lynch; and the recent Conservative Political Action Conference that drew conservatives from across the country.

Although both political parties have contributed to the economic mess, Ms. Huntenburg said, she voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election and seems likely to vote for him again this year.

Obama: Credit for trying

“Obama has done a lot,” although much more needs to be done to bring the big banks in line and establish a more level playing field between the top 1 percent of income earners and the rest of society, Ms. Huntenburg said.

Mr. Obama has offered various programs to create jobs, ease student loan burdens and make college more accessible. He has used his executive powers to accomplish some measures, such as a recent $25 billion mortgage fraud settlement with the five largest banks, but other initiatives are still being debated in Congress.

Ms. Huntenburg particularly gives Mr. Obama credit for instituting a rule prohibiting banks from automatically assessing overdraft fees on checking accounts.

She previously amassed hundreds of dollars in penalties because of accidental overdrafts, she said. Under the new regulations, her load of fees was reduced to $65.

“The small things help. They really do,” she said.

Ms. Huntenburg’s age group, the so-called “Millennials” from 19 to 34, played a key role in Mr. Obama’s 2008 election as well as organizing the Occupy protests. They came out in unprecedented numbers and provided Mr. Obama with the margin of victory in key states, including Virginia and North Carolina.

With an eye toward courting and energizing those voters once again, Mr. Obama has stayed attuned to their needs and frequently expressed sympathy with the demands of the Occupy group in his speeches and budget proposals.

Like the Occupy forces, he is calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, new taxes on banks that received bailouts, and money for jobs in construction, green energy and other areas.

The Republican alternative

Republican candidates, by contrast, have shown little inclination to court the protesters or their broader age group. Some have outright mocked the protesters, suggesting that they are just lazy or spoiled rich kids with nothing else to do but sit in the parks and protest.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told protesters to “go get a job, right after you take a bath,” in an off-the-cuff remark last fall. Protesters say those criticisms miss the point: that jobs simply aren’t there for many of them.

Matthew Segal, president and co-founder of Our Time, a national advocacy group for Americans younger than 30, said some Republican candidates seem to be blaming rather than trying to help the unemployed.

He has called on the GOP candidates to offer solutions and endorsed Mr. Obama’s approach of taking selective actions by executive order without waiting for Congress.

Mr. Obama should “push his executive order privilege to the limit and fight for job opportunities for young Americans,” Mr. Segal said. “We are losing the potential of a generation who wants to work, who wants to contribute.”

Republicans counter that a strong economy is the best cure for the problems of workers young and old.

“The best way to help young workers and recent graduates is to ensure they have a job when they enter the workforce,” said Andrea Saul, campaign spokeswoman for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Under Mr. Obama’s policies, she added, “Young adults are struggling like never before to find work.”

Living in a depression

As far as Elijah Sky Jackson is concerned, the economy and the elites who control it have crushed his chances for having a good life.

“We’re in a depression,” said the unemployed and homeless 28-year-old from San Diego who joined the D.C. protest this year.

The economy is as bad as it was during the Great Depression for many people like him, he said. But instead of pulling together to find solutions like people did during the 1930s, people today seem to be pulling apart and blaming the victims, he said.

“We learned how to deal with it more in the last depression,” he said.

Mr. Jackson has been unemployed off and on, and living in the woods and homeless for the better part of a decade. He has been unable to hold down a job since severe health problems and a car accident left him disabled and unable to stand or walk far.

Fighting an alcohol addiction - he has been sober for two years - and without any health insurance, he has depended on the largesse of state and church groups for treatment while amassing nearly $250,000 in unpaid medical bills.

He is applying for Social Security disability benefits and Medicaid, and hopes that will enable him to bring new order to his life and perhaps return to culinary school to get the credentials to become a chef — his life’s dream.

“I would love to go to college,” he said. “I want a career, a profession, a life, retirement. … The way it’s working now, you can’t have it.”

Mr. Jackson, an American Indian, gets no help from his mother, a drug addict, or father, who disappeared when he was a child. He said he appreciates the fact that the “top 1 percent” of income earners pay for much of the welfare benefits he is seeking.

“They can have their wealth. But the playing field has to be leveled,” he said. “People like me earn $7 to $8 an hour and live with five roommates. The benefits have helped me, but I’ve paid into the system. Ever since I was 17, I washed dishes, raked yards.”

Mr. Jackson, who indicated that he is not likely to vote this year, said the living conditions of the poor people he knows are “horrible.” Things will get better only if the United States gets “the corporate influence out of politics” and revamps the economic system, he said.

Dwindling opportunity

Helping people like Mr. Jackson lead a productive life will be particularly difficult as the chances for advancement are the most bleak for people at the lowest income levels who don’t have college educations, said John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities.

“It is undeniable that there is a growing income gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of America,” he said. A recent Congressional Budget Office study found that the share of income earned by the top 1 percent soared 278 percent from 1979 to 2007 while median household income grew just 19 percent.

“This disparity in the American economic experience over the past generation is among the primary catalysts for the various Occupy movements across the country,” Mr. Silvia said.

With six out of 10 Americans supporting policies to address income equality, “this issue of income inequality will likely be at the forefront of the political discourse throughout the presidential election year,” he said.

Americans historically have tolerated wide disparities in income because avenues have been available for moving up the economic scale. Although that remains true today for the educated middle class, opportunities to move up are scarce for people at the bottom in incomes and education, Mr. Silvia said.

These people cannot fill jobs that go begging at businesses who need highly skilled workers, while a deluge of unskilled immigrant labor in recent decades has increased competition for the low-skilled jobs available and depressed wages for those jobs, he said.

Rather than redistribute income further through the tax system, Mr. Silvia said, the most effective remedies for those hardest to employ are good nutrition and child care for poor children, as well as schooling focused on skills.

Glenn Nye, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said the Occupy movement has the potential to become a “serious political force” in elections this year if Democrats can harness the “deep sense of unfairness that attracts large numbers of new Occupiers” to cities and schools across the country.

“The popularity of any movement based on anger over economic weakness comes as no surprise,” he said. “Perhaps more interesting is that the Occupy Wall Street movement seems rooted more in a sense of civil unfairness than simply anger at unemployment.”

The Occupy activists’ focus on the “preferential access to political power” and perks for the wealthiest Americans “resonates with working-class Americans,” Mr. Nye said. “Many share the view that since the economy crashed, most Americans are suffering while the wealthiest are protected with bailouts and preferential tax treatment.”