There’s a reason living with parents is now the most common housing arrangement for young adults
By Lydia Wood, James Anderson and Brandon Edwards-Schuth
Tuition and fees for public colleges in the US rose 80 percent between 2000 and 2014 while American household income fell seven percent during the same period, according to recent data published by ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism outlet.
The data shows yearly tuition and public schools across the US rose $3,563 in adjusted 2014 dollars, and the median household income was $4,067 less in 2014 compared to 2000.
Using the online tool ProPublica provided, which allows users to obtain information specific to their state, we learn tuition and fees increased 162 percent in California, more than double the average. Students in California paid $5,327 more in 2014 than did an earlier generation of aspiring scholars back at the turn of the millennium. Those attending California colleges and universities paid $1,674 more in tuition and fees than the average American student in 2014.
Meanwhile, median household income among California residents decreased by $3,871, a little less than the average. Hidden in that middle-income number, however, is the financial hardship endured by the bottom half of the state’s wage earners. The lowered median income in the state fails to communicate the fight for scraps taking place among growing numbers of students and college-educated workers on the West Coast in the midst of an explosion of high-tech accelerated affluence in the Bay Area and beside the beachside wealth within San Diego, where long-documented gentrification continues at the same time as the city’s 5,000+ homeless remain under constant assault.
Tellingly, one in 10 California State University students are also experiencing homelessness, a study commissioned by the university’s own chancellor revealed this year, while another 1 in 4 are food insecure.
This too reflects related national trends. There’s a reason living with parents is now the most common housing arrangement for young adults for the first time on record.
Having examined metropolitan areas across the country, the Pew Research Center published a study in May 2016 showing the number of Americans in the middle-income tier are now no longer in the majority, even as the much celebrated “middle class” remains the campaign focus of the two millionaire politicians running for presidential office. This is much to the chagrin – or, more accurately, legitimate anti-establishment disgust – of the “millennial” generation, those of us born from the early 1980s up through the early 2000s.
The Census Bureau recently reported that millennials are more likely to possess a bachelor’s degree, but they are also more likely to live in poverty than their parents’ generation. Today’s students, graduate students and also adjunct professors faced with diminished tenure-track job prospects all pursued or are pursuing debt-financed higher education since few other options exist for obtaining the increasingly expensive commodity of the degree and post-secondary educational experience.
It is crucial, then, to lay bare the less-than-golden opportunity available to those of us today through higher education in the Golden State, but also to highlight the opportunities and organizations that exist to alter the situation, which requires recalling some history.
Before coming to California, one of us grew up, attended college and completed graduate school in Illinois, where tuition actually increased $6,484 dollars between 2000 and 2014 while the median income plummeted $8,404 during those years, ProPublica’s online tool illustrates. While the Western states gained several thousand manufacturing jobs from 1975 until 1985, the year one of us was born, the Midwest lost more than one million of those jobs in the same period – the sorts of then oft-unionized blue collar positions that paid well enough for people to survive relatively debt free and even help put their kids through college. Along with productive industry throughout the region, those union shops across the country started disappearing around that time, however.
Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show union membership in the US went from 23.3 percent in 1983 to less than 13 percent by 2014.
Decent paying union jobs in the Midwest and throughout the rustbelt were decimated by deindustrialization, as corporations relocated production to places where labor was cheaper, driving downward mobility and creating swaths of déclassé intellectuals, the many educated and frequently tech-savvy millennials afforded a loan-enabled college education but then denied the meaningful work and decent job prospects on offer for their parents’ generation.
Not surprisingly, given the decline in labor unions, incomes throughout the US have stagnated since the early 1980s when the oldest of millennials first appeared on the scene, meaning greater numbers of us must take out loans to help pay for what is needed to survive and thrive, education included. We are, in effect, getting screwed twice: first by the reduced real wages not keeping pace with inflation, and second by being compelled to take out loans that we then must pay back with interest, thereby increasing profits for the same class already profiting from paying us less.
“Your student loan is past due, JAMES,” a typical subject line for a recurring email from FedLoan Servicing might read, as if putting a person’s name in ALL CAPS will change the fact some colleges in California pay contingent faculty less than $500 per month per class taught – not exactly enough to ensure prompt debt repayments.
Today’s generation of young adults are also less likely to find jobs than were young adults circa 1980, according to Census Bureau data, and when we do find work we earn about $2,000 less than did Baby Boomers in their twenties and early thirties three decades ago.
In California, more than 50 percent of students graduated with debt in 2014 and the average debt for those graduating students exceeded $20,000.
Some suggest Ronald Reagan put this process of not-so-covert nationwide privatization of public education, realized through increased tuition and fees, into motion when he was governor of California. Reagan was elected in 1966 after running a campaign based in part on informing the public of college students’ “sexual orgies so vile I cannot describe them to you.” To inaugurate a new era of higher education defunding in California and beyond Reagan rehashed rhetoric first developed in the wake of New Deal labor protections – the provisions, enacted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which incensed California agri-business magnates, even though the legislation did not impact them since it did not, in the main, apply to farm workers.
Yet, as Kathryn Olmsted, professor of history at UC Davis, documented in her book “Right out of California: The Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism,” wealthy classes in California took action after muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair ran for governor of the state in 1934 on the Democratic Party ticket, championing the “End Poverty in California” – or EPIC – campaign. Sinclair advanced a populist platform premised on implementing real economic democracy by funding worker cooperatives with taxes on the Golden State’s most gilded citizenry. And that was the last straw. Big business in California went on the counter-offensive.
Their strategy was to flip the script, shifting focus from the increasingly popular critique of the economic elite and the arrangements that disproportionately benefited them to instead attacking a depraved cultural elite, a bunch of godless eggheads and rabble-rousers responsible for the decline in traditional family values. Communist union organizers – like syndicalists in the Industrial Workers of the World before them – empowered women to lead labor strikes, fueling the flames and providing fodder for propaganda about heathen left-wing movements subverting traditional gender hierarchies and threatening time-honored institutions.
This ignited the earliest incarnation of the “culture wars,” and it inaccurately lumped milquetoast progressives like FDR into the same camp as democratic socialists like Sinclair, both disparaged as dangerously out-of-touch intellectuals clandestinely trying to undermine God, family, and property. The public relations strategy could thus undercut any attempts, however modest, to democratize social and economic power or otherwise advance rights of working people.
Future California politicians, like Nixon and Reagan, recovered the “culture wars” rhetoric decades later, and the latter used it with enormous success against students in the 1960s who could be depicted as spoiled and snobbish smart alecks engaged in lewd acts of protest and sexual transgressions posing threats to the social and moral order.
Once president, it was also Reagan who helped break the back of organized labor, making a powerful public gesture by firing 11,000 air traffic controllers who were out on strike in August 1981 for better pay and improved working conditions.
It is no coincidence, we suspect, that one of the last remaining and reemerging bastions of a militant labor movement is in the area of higher education. Some of that resurgence is even afoot here in Southern California where struggles against exorbitant tuition are intersecting with other labor-related issues.
Two of us are on the bargaining committee for UAW 4123, the union representing more than 10,000 Academic Student Employees in the CSU system. These ASE’s serve as the vital cheap laborers that have allowed the CSU system to continue functioning. They teach many of the classes, grade the academic work, and also serve as tutors and research assistants that support faculty’s career and grants. Despite their vital position in the university system, the average TA’s take home pay is only $500 a month, while the average tutor and grader earns only $12.40 an hour.
To make matters worse, they must contend with ever-increasing fees and tuition in cities with skyrocketing costs of living throughout California. Per contract, campus presidents have the discretion to give tuition waivers to only those who are graduate student Teaching Assistants or Graduate Assistants – a rare practice affecting only a select few, but would be an enormous help to all.
Recognizing this, UAW 4123 is advocating for full or partial tuition waivers for all Academic Student Employees as well as substantial raises over the next three years. If realized in our new contracts, these changes would go a long way towards righting the exploitative and poverty wages ASEs currently contend with. Visit UAW 4123’s website for the latest updates on their current bargaining with the CSU.
Lydia Woods is a PhD candidate in geography at SDSU-UCSB. She was raised in Vermont but now lives in precarious student living conditions in Southern California, a place where she was told by a CSU representative to buy a BB gun to fend off rats. She is advocate for affordable and socially just educational institutions.
James K. Anderson, PhD, is a déclassé writer, journalist, scholar and social theorist. He was born and raised in the Midwest but now struggles to live in Southern California. He will be teaching classes at Mt. San Jacinto College and California State University San Marcos during the fall 2016 semester.
Brandon Edwards-Schuth is an MA alumnus for philosophy at SDSU, the Vice President of UAW 4123 in Southern California, and a member of the rapidly growing “parental-living” class. He combats false consciousness of millennials daily and jokes about how philosophy majors are an endangered species.