Senator Ben Sasse (R-Real America) is Very Concerned about Kids Today. Kids today (who should get out of his yard) don’t know how to solve problems, apparently because too few of them have been employed in agriculture as tweens and their parents don’t enrich them with trips out of their bubbles. So noted.
Much has been written about his tired millennial bashing and the narrow view Sasse took of young people. I am struck by his failure to acknowledge how much of his good fortune traces to his graduating from college in 1994 rather than 2017; how much more difficult it is for “kids today” to secure the opportunities that he and I (Brown class of 1993) had as a result of our birth years; and most unfortunately, his own role in moving the goal posts for the young people he denigrates.
In Sasse’s New York Times op-ed, he argues that instead of working, “kids today” only passively consume. Surely, these supposedly passive consumers of whom Sasse speaks aren’t the 21% of US kids living in poverty or the roughly half who actually are working summer jobs (much less those who can’t find one). He doesn’t mention the 50% of full-time college students and over 80% of part-time students who work nor the 1 in 5 Los Angeles community college students who are homeless.
Sasse’s portrait of Kids Today perhaps reflects the privileged bubble that he generously advises parents to get out of by visiting a different neighborhood (get out of the car, maybe?). For all protestations to the contrary, it also romanticizes rural work, despite the fact that fewer than one in five of us lives in a rural area. Absent opportunities to work with corn or cattle, what’s a passive consuming to do?
Don’t get me wrong: I value the hard work I did as a kid. In fact, like Sasse I was fortunate to have farm jobs- mucking stalls at a horse farm starting at age 9, working at a berry farm in high school, and teaching kids to ride horses and mucking stalls a couple of times per week when in college. I babysat from age 11. I like hard work; it suits me. However, as someone who works with Kids Today every day, I know Senator Sasse’s op-ed erases the real hard work that young people do and studiously avoids both the real challenges they face and his role in them.
First, though Ben Sasse romanticizes hard work, he doesn’t reward it. Sasse opposes increasing the minimum wage, which you’ll see is relevant to young people’s capacity to pay for their education.
As a college professor in DC, I write many rec letters for Capitol Hill internships. I’ve not yet sent a rec to Sasse’s office (though I’m proud to have sent one of my best to Ted Cruz’s office, and particularly proud that this young conservative valued his experience in my class enough to work for me as a teaching assistant and request a letter. Kudos also to Senator Cruz’s office for giving him a chance in spite of the recommendation from such a dubious character.) so I gave them a call yesterday to ask what they pay their DC interns. They pay a stipend $1000 per month for full-time work, which they confirmed meant 40 hours. Treating a month as four weeks (160 hours), Sasse’s interns make $6.25 per hour, which is far less than DC’s minimum wage of $12.50. He can do that because an internship provides “opportunity.” However it only provides this opportunity to kids who can afford it.
Let’s see how far this sub-minimum stipend would go.
For those who are unfamiliar with the DC Metro area, please stand to the right in the escalator and walk to the left when you visit, and work on your parallel parking if you travel here by car. But also, if you’re unfamiliar, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in DC is about $2000 plus utilities.
I searched Craig’s list for metro-accessible rentable rooms and found this nice room in a shared house for $460.*
*(When I say “nice,” I refer to the appealing photo. I don’t imply any knowledge of whether the current residents have a chest freezer full of human heads. Rent at your own risk).
Since my hypothetical intern will live in Virginia, and an internship stipend (unlike an education stipend or fellowship) is taxable income, her net pay would be $814.43.
Assuming her housemates would agree to let her rent this room for only two months and don’t ask for a security deposit or her share of utilities, she’s left with $354.43.
She needs to get from home to work. Rush hour metro fares from her local station to Union Station, steps from the Senate, are $2.80 each way, which means $5.60 per day, or $112 for four weeks.
Now Sasse’s intern, who is working full time in a responsible job for a Senator who is paid $174,00 per year, has $242.43 to live on each month, or $8 per day to cover every expense after housing and transportation.
Setting aside that eating on $8 per day in DC would be quite a feat (peruse the Dirksen Senate Building menu here) , your intern needs:
· A phone, so her supervisor can stay in touch as she dashes about the Capitol Complex doing her work;
· Work clothes and a way to clean them;
· Haircuts- this is a professional workplace after all.
I’ll leave you to consider every other expense you might incur in a month. I also left off one major expense: health care. Thanks to Obamacare, which Senator Sasse voted to repeal, his intern can at least stay on a parent’s health plan during these lean years, which means although she has next to nothing, at least if she breaks an ankle sprinting to deliver her boss a hearing binder, her family won’t go into bankruptcy.
Let’s say this enterprising young intern can swing DC on $8 a day. She’s young, frugal, and knows where the free reception food is. This budget assumes that she doesn’t need to earn money over the summer to cover her expenses and tuition for the school year- which is unrealistic for a young person who doesn’t come from the top 30% of our income distribution. Her cost of attending college—including public universities (Sasse attended Harvard), is high.
It wasn’t always quite this high, though elite private schools were never cheap. Nonetheless, when Senator Sasse and I attended college (I graduated in 1993; Sasse in 1994), the cost of his Harvard education was just shy of $25,000 and my education at Brown cost close to that. Just 23 years later, Harvard students now pay close to $67,000.
This massive increase in expenses isn’t limited to the rarified world of Ivies and elite private schools; public education costs have skyrocketed too.
Students at the University of Nebraska paid $2300 in 1994. In the 2016-2017 academic year, they paid $8500 close to four times as much.
However, their earnings- even in the entry-level jobs Sasse imagines are easy to find—have not kept pace with tuition. Nebraska’s minimum wage in 1994 was $4.25 per hour. Today it is $9. In other words, today’s students would have to work almost twice as many hours today to pay their tuition.
Senator Sasse’s party bears some of the blame for this; a Republican-dominated legislature has passed funding cuts that result in tuition increases . In fact, state funding for higher education is down nationwide. Considering that Sasse’s party dominates state legislatures and governors’ mansions, they own much of this—and the resulting tuition increases.
Senator Sasse is aware of rapid increases in the cost of education; in fact he presided over significant tuition increases as president of Midland University. Midland University tuition and fees went from $23,664 in 2010 to $28,150 in 2014, an increase of almost 19%.
During that time period, the median household income in Nebraska increased from $52,624 to $52,747, an increase of 0.2%
In other words, during Sasse’s tenure at Midland, tuition increased at 81 times the rate of income growth in his state. But apparently, the real emergency is that his students weren’t great at decorating Christmas trees (thanks, Senator, for not attributing this to a liberal war on Christmas).
Senator Sasse’s fantasies about passive consumer kids notwithstanding, today’s young people have to work far harder than he and I did to earn an education.
If he wants to teach young people the value of hard work, I suggest Senator Sasse reward hard work with a wage that reflects that value, and supports policies that afford young people the same opportunities we had.