Seven Policies Young Americans Want To See Addressed In The Next Four Years
On Election Day, young Americans overwhelmingly voted for progress, supporting progressive candidates and policies on both national and local ballots.
President Obama? Young voters kept him in office.
Congress? Young voters helped make it the most diverse in history.
The bottom line: If young people hadn’t shown up to the polls in record numbers, Americans would be facing a radically different vision for our country’s future.
But this didn’t end at the ballot box. Young Americans are working tirelessly to secure progressive change on a range of issues, and there’s no time to waste.
So as President Obama comes before Congress tonight for his annual State of the Union address, we turned to young people across the country to curate a list of pressing issues that President Obama, members of Congress, policymakers, and elected officials across the country must address in the next four years.
1. We need to tackle the student debt crisis, beginning by allowing borrowers to refinance their education debt.
Did you know that 37 million Americans now owe a collective $1 trillion in education debt?
This student debt crisis has created an economy where many Americans are forced to delay important life decisions—buying a car, purchasing a home, investing in the future—that help individual citizens pursue the American Dream and have positive impacts on our country’s economy.
We shouldn’t be punishing those who pursue higher education with cripplingly high interest rates and debt that is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy or death.
President Obama has already used his executive power to lay the groundwork for regulating the private student loan industry, and he’s appointed Richard Cordray to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which will serve as an advocate for consumers and education loan borrowers. Cordray has listened to the challenges faced by private students loans from borrowers through comments submitted to the agency, strived to protect college students’ consumer interests by making it easier for them to calculate how much they would have to repay on the loan post-graduation, inquired about financial products marketed to students on campus, and created a standardized model for comparing college costs.
To grapple with the economic market crisis in 2007, we saw banks, corporations, and homeowners get a fair chance to rebuild by refinancing their debts. With significantly reduced interest rates or modified loan agreements, borrowers were able to make their monthly payments while freeing up their wallets just enough to get their purchase mojo back to stimulate the economy. But there was one group of American consumers who were left behind during the bailout: Those who borrowed to finance their education.
Interest rates on government debt are remarkably low—currently below 2 percent—yet interest rates on unsubsidized federal student loans remain stagnant at 6.8 percent, and some types carry even higher rates.
It’s time we prioritize higher education, rein in the rising cost of earning an advanced degree, and create protections for those who’ve borrowed. And, more immediately, it’s time to pass on the government’s savings to American education loan borrowers by allowing them to refinance their debt.
Other recommendations—such as making Income-Based Repayment the default for federal education loans, or urging Congress to reinstate bankruptcy protections for student loan borrowers—would help young adults manage their education debt, get on the path to financial independence, and do their part to stimulate the American economy.
2. We need to create an economy that works for all Americans, including those 18-35, by creating jobs for young Americans.
Strengthening our workforce is at the core of rebuilding our economy. We need to invest in programs that sharpen the skills of millions of Millennial workers, who need to compete in the global marketplace.
Over the next four years, the Obama administration and Congress should work to expand AmeriCorps, a federally funded program that places hundreds of thousands of young people into underserved communities and gives them the opportunity to work in schools, rebuild communities, and create sustainable social change. In 2011, more than 580,000 applied for the program, up from 360,000 in 2009.
A growing number of young people across the country want to serve, and the program is benefiting them and the many communities they’re helping.
But the funding to expand capacity is not yet there. President Obama’s has proposed budgets that include $8 billion for a Community College to Career Fund, aimed at “training two million workers for well-paying jobs in high-demand industries.” Increased job training through community colleges would provide a critical boost in reducing the Millennial unemployment rate and creating new opportunities for low-income young people seeking to develop new skills and gainful employment.
It’s also crucial that we work to make education more accessible to all Americans. Three in four Millennials (73 percent) say they support governmental involvement in making college more affordable. Making higher education more affordable and accessible while allowing borrowers to have a fair shot at repaying their education debt in a manageable way is a two-pronged approach to better preparing our workforce while dealing with the urgent student debt crisis. It’s a win-win for Americans and our economy.
3. We need to reform our immigration system so more people can contribute to our economy and society while working toward citizenship.
Estimates show that approximately 11 million undocumented people live in the United States. President Obama’s directive to keep certain young immigrants from being deported was a good first step but serious advances toward comprehensive immigration reform are long overdue.
The Millennial generation strongly favors such a country—a whopping 81 percent of young people support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Congress should pass, and President Obama should sign, legislation that brings justice to immigrant young people and their families.
In his most recent inaugural address, Obama said: “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
Reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for these young people, called DREAMers, is not just an option: It’s a duty to welcome those who are already contributing greatly to our economy.
Undocumented immigrant youth and their families are a part of our communities. They share the same American value of fairness, quality, and hard work. We must fix the system so that more people are on a pathway to citizenship and are able to contribute to our society and our economy.
4. We should ensure that all Americans—regardless of their sexual orientation—are treated equally.
Young people have consistently demonstrated that our generation is more supportive and accepting of LGBT-identified individuals. Today, 62 percent of young people favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry—but Millennials know LGBT equality is about more than just marriage. In most states, young workers can be fired from their jobs simply for being gay or transgender.
Our generation is counting on Congress to ensure all workers, regardless of their sexual orientation, have comprehensive workplace protections from discrimination in place so that they are able to support themselves and their families.
5. We must find ways to create safe cities, communities, and campuses, without the serious threat of gun violence.
During a speech last weak in Minneapolis, President Obama again called for an assault weapons ban, as well as universal background checks for firearms purchases and a ban on high-capacity magazines. Since the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the president has consistently pushed the national discourse on preventing gun violence.
What President Obama, and families everywhere who have been touched by the too-frequent threat of gun violence, are calling for is common-sense legislation. Young people are disproportionately victims of gun violence. Since the Newtown shooting, 1,130 young Americans have been killed, and 77 percent of homicide victims between the ages of 15 and 17 are killed with a gun.
Unsurprisingly, young Americans are also some of the strongest proponents of such common-sense reform that would save lives and improve the quality of life in communities across the nation. A full one-third of young people (18-34) say they’re dissatisfied with our nation’s gun laws, and a whopping 81 percent of young people (18-29) support increased background checks at gun shows.
President Obama has already signed 23 executive actions geared toward preventing gun violence.
As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently: “If we refuse to act now, I don’t know if we will ever act. Sometimes the time picks you; sometimes you pick the time. The time has picked us.”
6. We must address the issue of climate change.
President Obama said as much during his inaugural address. “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” he declared, “knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
During his first term, Obama tried to push the Waxman-Markey “cap and trade,” comprehensive legislation that would reduce emissions of the gases that cause global warming, but it stalled in the Senate. This time, it seems the president may take a different route by tackling the issue administratively, pushing to reduce emissions from power plants and ensuring home appliances run as efficiently as possible. The administration is even setting an example by reigning in the federal government’s carbon pollution.
But Obama can't do it alone, and neither can young people. Young people have committed to the divestment movement that has spread to college campuses across the country in recent months, carried out risky actions, and helped organize the Forward on Climate rally to continue galvanizing support on the issues more attention to the issue. We need meaningful legislation that will help us rein in our emissions while simultaneously investing in greener ways to harness and expend our energy.
6. We need to prevent efforts that block eligible Americans from voting.
A constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act is looming and, though it’s not clear whether the Supreme Court will review the case, it does represent a desperate last-ditch effort to prop up barriers to voting by young people, people of color, low-income citizens, and seniors.
But the waves of voter suppression efforts that have emerged in numerous states in recent years haven’t been enough to stop young voters from showing up to the polls. Still, more must be done to ensure that civic participation by the emerging electorate won’t be threatened by a diluted democracy.
One way the Obama administration and Congress can protect young people’s voting rights is to remove money from politics. The 2012 election, the Huffington Post reported, was the priciest in history. In total it cost $6 billion, with a record $1 billion in spending by independent groups alone Lobbyists, Super PACs, millionaires (and billionaires) have been allowed to exert far too much influence in our political system, and it’s one of the biggest threats to civic participation for the Millennial generation.
When young people see our political and democratic system as one that favors the wealthy and leaves the voices of the average citizen unheard, they can become discouraged, disillusioned, and decide that voting doesn’t make a difference. A democracy can only thrive when every citizen feels like their voice matters and are actively engaged in the process.
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There are plenty of other important issues our elected officials should address, from ensuring Americans are compensated fairly regardless of gender, to address growing inequalities in our tax code, to creating a more open government.
These seven pillars represent key issues for the 90 million Millennials. Let’s get moving.
Naima Ramos-Chapman is an associate editor at Campus Progress.
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