I didn’t need Tamara Draut to tell me that I’m strapped, but I did need her to tell my mom. In the five years since I graduated college, the same argument arises again and again. I insist that it’s much harder to make a living now versus when she was my age in the mid-’70s. My mom disagrees, and continues to wonder why I haven’t taken her advice and purchased a home. I inform her that a down payment on a condo in Los Angeles, where I live and work, would be greater than the sum total of all money I’ve made this year. She again tells me the story of how she and my father saved the money for their first down payment while she was a drugstore clerk and he was an oft-unemployed electrical engineer. I tell her those days are over, at least in California, and she doesn’t believe me. Repeat as necessary.
This ongoing fight with my mom had reached an all-time high recently because my husband and I have begun to panic about our future. Unless, somehow, we can genetically engineer offspring that needs neither food nor diapers, our hopes of being able to afford a child are not great. In addition to cash flow issues, my job does not provide paid maternity leave, and our insurance doesn’t cover much, let alone pregnancy. As a result of this stress, I have developed a recurring fantasy of taking President Bush, grabbing him by the hair and slamming his face on his desk repeatedly while screaming, “Family values? I’ll show you family values. I’m moving to Canada so I can afford to have a family.” Hell hath no fury like a lioness without cubs.
Since my mother and I both find the prospect of me moving back home nightmarish, I decided to end our “standards of living: then and now” debate once and for all. I sent her Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, and guess what? It worked! Yes, the Strapped method of garnering parental support work for me. I want to do infomercials for the book now. “Do your baby boomer parents wonder why all their success hasn’t rubbed off on you? Do they ask you why they bothered to send you to college when you’re un-or-underemployed? Do they think you’re paying more than half your paycheck in rent just because you’re decadent? Then this book is for you!”
Draut lays it out like a pro without indulging the whininess that so often creeps into my voice when I try to convey my generation’s situation to my mother. The problems for us youngsters are as follows: college is expensive and induces dept, paychecks aren’t rising with the cost of living, rent and home prices are prohibitively high, starting a family is costly, and finally, We Are All In Debt (sing it to the tune of Weezer’s “We Are All on Drugs” if it’ll make you feel better). Furthermore, young people have lost faith in politics and government as a mechanism for enacting real change in our lives and aren’t protesting or voting at the rates that our parents did.
The problems affecting the young are far greater for people coming from low-income families. Even public and community colleges are vastly more expensive than they were for my parents’ generation, so many kids have to work full or part time to float their tuition. However, all that working gets in the way of studying and many students get caught in the trap: they need more money, so they work more hours and take fewer classes, and eventually they no longer have time for school. If students do finally finish school, most are wracked with inhibiting student loan payments. Couple that with an economy which is increasingly punishing to individuals without college degrees and you’ve got a problem. The median income, adjusted to 2002 dollars, for a male with a high school diploma has fallen from $42,630 in 1972 to $29,647 in 2002.
In addition to the student loan debt most of us acquire, we also have credit card debt. Draut points out that conventional wisdom says that young people “are wildly decadent about their spending,” but her interviews with young people across the country uncovered that credit card debt was usually acquired fixing cars and traveling home for holidays and weddings. Additionally, credit cards bear the costs of setting up an apartment and acquiring a professional wardrobe. The use of credit cards might not be so damning to young people were it not the untamed political lobbying cash cow that is the credit industry. There is little federal regulation of the fees and interest rates that credit cards can charge, making borrowing a complicated game that leaves many people screwed when it comes time to purchase their first home.
Perhaps the most pressing dilemma that Draut presents is that of the high cost of starting a family. While federal law requires that new parents can take up to three months off from their job, it does not require that time to be paid. As a result, only 36 percent of women and 33 percent of men take parental leave. Now that the standard for families is two working parents, childcare is a pressing concern with no easy way out. As Draut says, “When the cost of child care is prohibitively high, it may make sense on paper for one parent — usually it’s the mother — to stay home.” At this point in my life it makes sense for me to find a career that would allow me to also stay at home to raise children or is profitable enough to afford quality childcare, but these are lofty goals and my options are limited.
My mom actually took notes while reading. Her best notation? “Book premise — harder and more costly to become an adult.” Now that my mother is in tune with the pressing issues facing young people trying to become a full-fledged adult with a spouse, a home, a car, and a job, there’s no reason why the young people affected can’t become more aware and heed Draut’s call to political arms. Unless you want to a future of greater economic stratification and tyranny of debt collectors, read the book, pass it around, and start drafting some letters to politicians.