Youth bear brunt of economic crisis

Police pepper-spray students protesting fee hikes at University of California, Davis, on Nov. 16, 2011. Photo: © Francisco Dominguez / Special to Socialist Action

Police pepper-spray students protesting fee hikes at University of California, Davis, on Nov. 16, 2011. Photo: © Francisco Dominguez / Special to Socialist Action

By DANIEL XAVIER

For many youth in the U.S. today the “American dream” is very far out of reach. High unemployment rates, massive burdens of student loan debt, and rising costs of living all shape the outlook of young people. Currently, only 54.3 percent of youth (ages 18-24) have a job, the lowest level of employment for this age group since the government began tracking the data in 1948. According to marketwatch.com, only 56 percent of teenagers believe they’ll be financially better off than their parents, a 37 percent drop since 2011.

Students today find themselves graduating from high school and college only to discover that traditionally higher paying jobs such as manufacturing, engineering, and high-tech sector employment are not available to them. Increasingly, these youth turn to work in retail, customer service, administrative support, and other low-paying sectors. According to a Economic Policy Institute Report entitled, “The Class of 2012: Labor market for young graduates remains grim,” wages for high school graduates declined by 11.1 percent between 2000 and 2011 and dropped 5.4 percent for recent college graduates in the same period. Predictably, women and people of color are earning less than their white male counterparts.

Student loan debt is another major burden facing many young Americans. In 2012, the total share of student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion for the first time. Many financial analysts predict that the “student loan bubble” will be the next one to burst, threatening another financial crisis in an already strained economic situation. According to the Department of Education, federal student loan defaults are on the rise, with 8.8 percent defaulting in 2009 in comparison with 7 percent the year before.

With average tuition cost tripling since 1980, it’s not difficult to see why more students are forced to seek out loans to pay for college and end up graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Many students are now paying $20,000 or even $40,000 per year for tuition, room, and board. Black and Latino youth are more likely to exit college with a higher loan burden than white students.

But while the cost of higher education has risen dramatically in the past four decades, the quality has been on the decline. Many university departments face budget cuts, reduction of available courses, layoffs of faculty and staff, and ballooning class sizes. Mike, a recent graduate from the University of Connecticut, told Socialist Action, “In my senior year of college, I would often arrive to history class and find there were no available seats because the class was over-enrolled. Many days I would have to find a seat on the floor or a windowsill if I didn’t get to class early enough to grab a chair.” He continued, “I often thought to myself, ‘Am I really paying 40 grand a year to sit on a windowsill during class?’”

While some are frustrated and demoralized from the economic prospects and austerity measures, others are fighting back in an attempt to gain fair wages, good education and health care. These mobilizations, along with other efforts like unionization drives amongst young people in the workplace, are crucial for youth to be able to have anything other than a future of subsistence living in the United States.
U.S. students and youth are not the only ones facing this trend of declining standards of living. The global economic crisis has pushed ruling classes everywhere to drive up the cost of education, while lowering its value and scaling back on jobs.

But these austerity measures have not been implemented without a response from the youth. There have been important signs of resistance all over the globe. In 2010, tens of thousands turned out in the streets of London to protest a government proposal aimed at tripling tuition fees. Last year, a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico forced the president of the school to resign. In 2011-12, tens of thousands of students in Chile demanded the end of for-profit education, among other reforms. This past spring, when the Quebecois government passed Law 78, a measure intended to criminalize the student protest movement in Montreal, hundreds of thousands protested in some of the most massive mobilizations even seen in the Canadian province.

The United States has also seen a series of student protests in the past few years, particularly in California. Thousands of students first came out in 2009 to protest a 32 percent fee hike in the University of California school system. Last year, when the UC Board of Regents proposed another fee hike, students again turned out to fight the hikes. This movement provoked prominent instances of police brutality such as the now-famous image of a cop pepper-spraying students who were seated on the ground in handcuffs. While heroically facing down police assault, these students’ demands for quality and affordable education were not met.

The only way to secure a brighter future for the youth is to build a mass movement to fight for good jobs, quality education and health care, and affordable housing. Such a movement must remain independent of the Democrats and Republicans, who have proven time and again they are only concerned with the interests of the wealthy. Socialist Action supports the student mobilizations that have been occurring on a global scale and urges more regional, national, and international coordination of such movements.