I recently enjoyed lunch in Seattle with a former student I hadn’t seen in several years. The first in her family to go to college, she was able to attend Gonzaga through scholarships. She took two classes from me and earned an A in both. She went from Gonzaga to the Peace Corps, served in a developing country during a time of unrest and strife, and developed an interest in refugee resettlement. Her tour completed, she headed east to do graduate work at a highly regarded private university. She graduated with distinction and landed a position in a not-for-profit doing work in her area of interest. Today, however, she struggles to pay more than $60,000 in student loans; at least she has managed to launch a career.
The next generation, those graduating after the 2008 meltdown, face even more difficult challenges. These young people — call them the “Forgotten Generation” — completed college and entered the job market at the exact time the country began reeling from the excesses of what Andrew Bacevich terms our “culture of profligacy.” Today members of the Forgotten Generation, many even deeper in debt, face an unemployment rate in excess of 13 percent, much higher if you add those who aren’t on the unemployment rolls. Upwards of a third have moved back home.
President Obama has been of limited help. Thanks to him, young people may stay on their parent’s plan until age 26. And when the entire health care program kicks in, most will find other insurance. The President also worked to cut for-profit overhead on student loans. But aside from these laudable initiatives, he just doesn’t seem interested in addressing the deeper, more systemic problems.
Republicans are much worse, wallowing around in a mythological universe where “it’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” They vote again and again to derail health care reform, they cut other benefits, and if they have their way, students will pay much higher loan interest rates. A difficult situation for millions will be made much worse.
It wasn’t always this way, all this self-made nonsense. Let’s look back to 1944, to the passage of the G.I. Bill — tuition, stipends, money to begin businesses, a year’s worth of unemployment benefits, home loans and many other bits of largess. But, you say, these were our “heroes.” Many were, but of the 16 million Americans who saw military service during World War II, a significant percentage never went abroad. A much smaller fraction served near combat. A fraction of a fraction of a fraction did the heavy lifting on those Pacific islands, the North African desert, the hills in Italy, the beaches at Normandy and the forests in Belgium and Germany.
In the mid ’50s, the Bradley Commission, established by President Eisenhower and chaired by General Omar Bradley, concluded that military service should be about civic responsibility, not a way to get government benefits. Nonetheless, support for returning vets has continued. My younger brother, a Vietnam-era veteran (luck of the draw), did his two years in Seoul, Korea, working as an MP breaking up bar fights. He returned home, and thanks to all his veteran’s benefits, paid his way through law school and bought his first house. My student, by comparison, faced more danger during her Peace Corps service, but received no tuition break nor VA loan. And my brother never faced a mountain of debt.
Truth is, most of our “Greatest Generation” heroes never had to play Audie Murphy. They were required to serve six months (originally three) and be honorably discharged. Combat was never required. Richard Nixon spent most of his wartime duty in the Navy playing poker while at sea. (Apparently he was good at it, as he paid off his law school debts that way.)
While we don’t begrudge these benefits, we have to consider the broader lessons that emerged from our dramatic postwar initiatives. With the country deeper in debt then than it is now, what began as an act of gratitude came to serve as a broad-based investment in human capital — an investment in the country’s future. Today we look back and view these veteran’s benefits as having made possible the creation of the post-World War II middle class, sustaining it right up through the 1970s. Government intervention, in this instance, was indeed the solution, not the problem.
Today, instead of investing in human capital and the future, the Republican House holds us captive to bought-and-paid-for, ideologically driven inertia, with our own Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers at the forefront. Investment in human capital has come to be viewed as just an excuse to dole out money to the undeserving 47-percenters. Instead, they favor regressive policies that directly and indirectly promote a kind of indentured servitude. It’s hard to become a great generation when you’re exploited, stymied and forgotten.