the politics of student debt

When Democratic political candidates are asked about “youth,” often the first issue that comes to their minds is college affordability. For example, when Hillary Clinton was asked during a Democratic primary debate about how she would reach Millennials, her whole answer was about student debt.

I agree that student debt is a problem, but it’s not nearly as widespread as politicians assume. Nearly half of the debt is held by families in the top quartile, and for less advantaged younger Americans, student debt is only one of many challenges. Therefore, a much broader policy agenda is needed to engage the younger generation as a whole.

According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 42% of Millennials say that they or anyone else in their household holds student debt. Pew reports that 37% of 18-29s hold student debt in their own names. That is a lot of people, but not a majority.

Forty percent of Millennials do not take any college courses at all (whether in community colleges or four-year institutions). They don’t have college debt, and their immediate economic problems may be quite different: the minimum wage, daycare, job training, GED options.

Another 38 percent enroll in college but don’t attain a BA. They have mixed experiences. Some of them incur debt but don’t hold degrees. However, according to Sandy Baum and Martha Johnson, 60% of graduates of public community colleges hold no student debt. They have Associates Degrees and are debt-free. Most of the people who borrow to obtain a 2-year degree attend for-profit institutions, and that’s a problem unto itself.

[Graph corrected on April 21]

The proportions of all adults who report holding student debt is pretty steady across all income levels. (Source: Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan for the Urban Institute.)

But the loans get bigger as you go up the income ladder. Ratcliffe and McKernan report that people in the top quartile are least worried about their ability to repay their debt, yet they hold almost half of the dollars owed.

Similarly, Pew reports, “About two-thirds of young college graduates with student loans (65%) live in families earning at least $50,000, compared with 40% of those without a bachelor’s degree.”

It should not be surprising that the more education you attain, the higher your debt. This also means that the people with the most debt are young adults in white-collar professions. They may be struggling, and I am fully sympathetic to them, but they represent the upper socio-economic stratum.
Median amount of outstanding student debt varies widely by education level

It would therefore be difficult to spend public money reducing debt without channeling most of the resources to upper-income young adults.

More youth regard debt as a problem than personally hold debt. Fifty-seven percent tell Pew that “student debt is a major problem for young people in the United States.” One reason may be that the prospect of debt deters people from pursuing college at all (or keeps them from pursuing more costly four-year and postgraduate degrees). In that case, college affordability and debt would be challenges for more than the 35%-40% of Millennials who actually hold debt.

But it’s a big assumption that the main reason people don’t pursue college degrees is the cost of tuition. About 41% of 31-year olds have no more than a high school diploma. The next step up the SES ladder for them would be an Associates Degree, and 60% of people who graduate from public community colleges have no debt. There may be many reasons 41% of young adults can’t get Associates Degrees–and they may not even want one–but tuition is not likely the main obstacle.

I’d be the last person to criticize reforms that make college more affordable. I just don’t think that this is the Rosetta Stone to the Millennial vote.

National Week of Conversation Kicks Off Today!

Today officially kicks off the National Week of Conversation, an unprecedented week of connecting conversations that will run until next Saturday, April 28th!

The last few years have been hard on conversations. 75% of Americans now believe our inability to engage civilly with one another has reached a crisis level. We have not been this divided since the 1850s.  And the way we use technology tends to separate us even more.

The National Week of Conversation is about bringing Americans together to talk it out. Organizations can sign up to partner and host affiliated events (you can even add them to our calendar!). Individuals can sign up to participate both in person and online (individuals are welcome to host their own events too).

We strongly encourage you to check out the National Week of Conversation’s site here and see how this effort is happening all across the US. For those interested in starting your own event there are many supporting conversation guides, background information on a variety of subjects, and other resources. To facilitate these conversations even more, NWOC offers resources specifically designed for schools, libraries, and faith communities – which we have lifted up in the post below and you can find on NWOC’s site here.


Schools for NWOC: Resource Guide

Why? With the advent of social media algorithms and increasingly biased news pushing us into our own individualized filter bubbles, the country is reaching levels of division that in some ways is the worst we’ve seen since the 1850s. This is why it’s more important than ever to teach the next generation how to reach beyond their own bubbles and have civil conversations with people who disagree with them or have different backgrounds and perspectives.

Are you an educator interested in NWOC but can’t participate this year? Please still sign up your school to receive resources and updates about the next National Week of Conversation.

Free Services and Resources that can help

  • AllSides for Schools provides tools, lesson plans and resources from across the web for teachers and students to understand and discuss news and issues from different perspectives and across differences with civility and respect. Programs available for middle school, high school and college.
  • Bill of Rights Institute provides Bridge the Divide, a program that allows students to weigh in on hot-button political questions in a moderated online forum. Students can add their own opinions as well as up-vote the opinions of other students and see how peers view the important issues. Ideal for high school students.
  • Empatico is a tool for teachers to connect their lower-school students to classrooms around the world using seamless video conferencing technology. Activities are standards-based and designed to promote meaningful interactions and positive perceptions. Students are able to explore their similarities and differences with curiosity and kindness and develop practical communication and leadership skills. Designed for 7-11 year old students.
  • Mismatch connects teachers across the country so they can introduce their students to other students from different regions of the country with contrasting socioeconomic backgrounds and political perspectives. Students then engage in structured, respectful video conversations across differences, gaining mutual understanding and appreciation for one another. Ideal for high schools and colleges. Sign up your class for Mismatch now!

Click here to find Conversation Guides and Lesson Plans for Schools by Topic on:

  • Set the Tone – Getting your classroom started
  • Media Bias, Polarization, and Fake News
  • Free speech
  • Guns and Responsibility
  • Immigration
  • Race & Equity
  • Sexual Assault & Power Relationships
  • Other Topics

Libraries for NWOC: Resource Guide

Why should my library participate? The National Week of Conversation (NWOC) is an opportunity to help your library’s patrons connect with other people in their community and across the country. Libraries are a trusted gathering place in communities across the country, and can help in NWOC’s mission to revitalize our democracy. NWOC will allow your patrons to connect to other people in conversations they normally would not be able to have. Check out our PDF guide for participation.

How Can My Library Participate? There are a number of different ways your library can participate in NWOC!

Host an event, or make your library available for conversations:

  • Book Clubs: Provide space for your local book clubs to discuss a book that brings up important issues. Check out this list of suggestions from the Kansas City Public Library.
  • Living Room Conversations offers self-facilitated conversation guides. Simply provide meeting space and conversation guides to groups of patrons who can meet at your library for conversations.
  • Facilitated Conversations: Send an email to courtney[at]ncdd[dot]org to learn about bringing a facilitator to your library.

Provide computers for your patrons to connect with others across the country:
Mismatch is a service that utilizes free video conferencing systems to connect people across the country for conversations across divides. Simply provide space in your library for people to use computers and participate. Point your patrons to Mismatch.org where they can sign up for a conversation.

These are just a few ideas. We invite you to be creative and register your own event. Perhaps you want to use your own conversation guide or invite an expert speaker to your library? Please register your event and direct any questions to jaymee[at]allsides[dot]com.

Faith Communities for NWOC: Resource Guide

Why should my faith community participate? The National Week of Conversation (NWOC) is an opportunity to help your faith community’s members connect with other people in their community and across the country. Faith traditions share the common value of peace-making. Congregations of all faiths are trusted gathering places for the larger community as well as members of their own community. They also are organized to help people gather in communities across the country. This peace focus, trust and capacity for hospitality can help in NWOC’s mission to revitalize our democracy. NWOC will encourage your members to connect to other people in conversations they normally would not be able to have.

How Can My Congregation Participate? There are a number of different ways
your congregation can participate in NWOC!

Host an event, or make your congregation available for conversations:

  • Create a fellowship event: Invite members to gather for conversations that will help them grow in understanding and deepen relationships. Check out Planning a Community Living Room Conversation.
  • Provide a conversation opportunity for established groups: Most congregations have groups that meet regularly for fellowship, study, governance or service. Commit one meeting time to a conversation that will enrich your time together.
  • Build effective teams: Support congregational teams by offering conversations that give practice in understanding others’ perspectives, building trust and listening respectfully.
  • Living Room Conversations offers self-facilitated conversation guides. Simply provide meeting space and conversation guides to folks from your  larger community who can meet at your site for conversations.
  • Facilitated Conversations: Send an email to our Faith Communities Partner for assistance in hosting a virtual conversation (linda[at]livingroomconversations[dot]org) or locating a facilitator (courtney[at]ncdd[dot]org) who can be present with you.

Provide computers for your members to connect with others across the country:
Mismatch is a service that utilizes free video conferencing systems to connect people across the country for conversations across divides. Simply provide space in your congregation for people to use computers and participate. Point your patrons to Mismatch.org where they can sign up for a conversation.

These are just a few ideas. We invite you to be creative and register your own event. Perhaps you want to use your own conversation guide or invite an expert speaker to your faith community? Please register your event and direct any questions to linda[at]livingroomconversations[dot]org.

Join Us at the Boston Public Library for April 24th Dialogues

For those of you in and around Boston, consider joining us next Tuesday (April 24th) for seven dialogue events at the Boston Public Library as part of the National Week of Conversation.

NCDD has been working with the Boston Public Library and Big Tent Nation to offer these dialogues supported by highly skilled facilitators, and we encourage you to attend or to just help spread the word!

All dialogues will take place in BPL’s beautiful Central Library in Copley Square at 700 Boylston Street in Boston.

Here’s the rundown for next Tuesday…

3:00 – 4:30 pm

Immigration
a Conversation Cafe facilitated by Paul Weisman and Michele Simos of SMART Conversations (Register here)

Bridging Divides
a World Cafe facilitated by Kirsten Olson of Old Sow Coaching and Consulting (Register here)

Sexual Assault & Power Relationships
a Conversation Cafe facilitated by Heang Ly, Director of Consulting and Training at TeenEmpowerment.org (Register here)

5:00 – 6:30 pm

Race and Ethnicity
a Living Room Conversation facilitated by Vicky Peterson of CollabAction (Register here)

Guns and Responsibility
a Living Room Conversation led by professional facilitator Hilary Marcus (Register here)

7:00 – 8:30 pm

Safety and Justice
a National Issues Forum led by Mette Kreutzmann and Sara Cohen of the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration (MOPC) (Register here)

Bridging Divides
a Living Room Conversation led by professional facilitator Claudia Lach (Register here)

Going Negative: Angry Ads and Negative Partisanship

It’s been twenty years since Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar published Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink & Polarize the ElectorateAs Luke Skywalker likes to say, it’s impressive how every word in the title ended up being wrong. Or sort of: we’re more polarized than ever, but it probably wasn’t negative political ads that made us this way. And the electorate grew as a result.

Here’s what happened: some political scientists and pundits worried that negative campaigning was damaging the amicable concord of American politics. This is just one of those evergreen cycles of hot takes: once upon a time (the halcyon 1950s), the American Political Science Association worried the parties were too similar and cordial. Then all that changed in the hyper-partisan 60s and 70s. But by the 1990s, many voters reported that they wanted more civility in campaigns and positive messages from candidates again. So we saw lots of hand-wringing, and then  Ansolabehere and Iyengar provided the data to back those anxieties up: data from US Senate elections in 1992 seemed to show an inverse relationship between exposure to negative campaign ads and turnout, as well as a decrease in confidence in the electoral process. Similar results were shown experimentally in the 1990 California’s governor’s race and the 1992 presidential race.

Proponents of positive campaign ads seem to want a world where turnout is high and the tone of the campaign is hopeful and civil, and policy disagreements are discussed in high-minded and data-driven ways. People will turn out to vote from a sense of duty to study the issues and express their preferences between two (or more!) excellent candidates. That’s what I want, too. But that’s not how people work.

People are busy, and a lot of places have near-guaranteed outcomes because of state-level polarization, district gerrymandering, and urban “party machine” politics. So a lot of them don’t show up to vote if the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion. Over time, this can become habitual. One thing that can get disaffected voters back to the polls is anger at the other party. Perhaps this is why 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot in 1992, while in 2016 60% of voters showed up. In 2016, turnout was especially high in battleground or battleground-adjacent states with shared media markets and lots of negative campaigning–like Minnesota & Wisconsin, Maine & New Hampshire, and Colorado. Turnout was especially low in solidly partisan states like Hawaii and Texas, and with good reason: voters knew their ballots wouldn’t change the outcome.

We know the Alabama Senate campaign was so negative that the losing candidate still hasn’t conceded. Yet in a deeply red state in mid-December in an odd-year special election, expected turnout was 25%; actual turnout hit 40%. People–especially African-Americans–got angry. And anger got them active.

Why would anyone doubt that getting folks pissed off encourages them to participate? My suspicion is that this is a loyalty problem. A lot of civic engagement folks want to see more democratic deliberation with our fellow citizens, and all of the evidence suggests that cross-cutting political discussions increase bipartisan knowledge but require lots of civility constraints. If you think politics in primarily what happens in your community and with your neighbors, then federal and state politics will look like a distraction. Insofar as the loud, expensive advertisements for infrequent federal elections distract from the fundamental work of organizing communities, I am sympathetic.

Most people who care about federal politics are professionals, or do so the way other people pay attention to sports: they take a side and keep score. And negative campaigning pushes this framing, making not just campaigns but political life generally seem zero sum. Of course, campaigns are zero sum. (1) But politics and policymaking can be win-win. So it’s worth noticing that campaigns in the US have grown to encompass a vast selection of partisan politics. It seems that every professional politician implicitly understands Frances Lee’s claims in Beyond Ideology (based on this Journal of Politics article) that opposition parties in Congress act to block legislation supported by the president which could be interpreted as a “win” upon which he can campaign. Merely by adding an issue to their agenda, incumbent presidents create party-line opposition for (previously) non-ideologically-charged policies.

Obviously, we live in a time of negative campaigning. And that will likely continue to have all the negative effects the research predicts: increasing polarization and reducing cross-cutting political interactions. But as Diana Mutz worried in her Hearing the Other Sidethe opposite of civility is mobilization. And we’re seeing good evidence of that in the Women’s Marches and underlying organizing by women:

The Tea Party rallies were an impressive mobilisation but they pale in comparison to the recent women’s marches. Erica Chenoweth at the University of Denver and her colleague Jeremy Pressman estimate that the 653 women’s marches across the country in January 2017 involved between 3.3m and 5.2m million people. The best guess is that 1.3% of Americans marched. The researchers also estimate that another 6,400 anti-Trump protests in America between the marches and the end of 2017 drew between 2.6m and 3.8m participants. While the women’s marches were officially non-partisan, survey evidence suggests otherwise. Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan estimates as many as 90% of the women attending the march in Washington, DC in 2017 had voted for Hillary Clinton.

The marchers did not show up for civility positive messages: they showed up because they’re angry. Marching is not organizing; it’s not a substitute for winning elections, or passing laws, or making budgets. But I think it’s time to admit that negative campaigns work to increase engagement.

Some questions remain: does negative campaigning polarize the electorate, or is it a response to that polarization? Is polarization a good thing for helping to sharpen policy disagreements or a bad thing for undermining our ability to collaborate across difference? How should we interpret these questions in the light of possible partisan realignments? Can we at least agree that the other side is wrong?


1: Except in rare cases like the Alabama Senate race when even most Republicans were privately rooting against their party’s embarrassing candidate. They still campaigned for him though, just in case he won.

the right to strike

Yesterday, Alexander Gourevitch from Brown University spoke on “The Right to Strike.” I won’t try to summarize (or scoop) the argument of his forthcoming paper, except to say that Gourevitch uses an account of oppression to give a strong defense of the right to strike, and he squarely addresses the hard issue. Successful strikes often require a degree of coercion in the form of picket lines, sit-ins, work-stoppages that close the firm, strong moral pressure on potential scabs, etc. Many liberal political theorists, American jurists, and European social democrats defend unions and acknowledge the right to strike but are squeamish about the coercive aspect. They either deny that coercion occurs or argue that strikes are only acceptable when free of all coercion. Gourevitch defends the coercive aspect of strikes–although not as an absolute right.

I would reach the same destination from a different starting point. I would begin with the premise that human beings have the right to create, design, and govern groups. Among the many types of groups that we design are governments (at all levels and scales), companies (privately held or publicly traded), and unions. Any of these three can allow or prevent an individual from working in a particular job. The government can regulate or legislate against the job or a category of workers, the firm can refuse to hire or fire an employee (or close the whole shop), and the union can strike. I begin with no assumption that any of these acts is more–or less–legitimate than the others. Governments, companies, and unions can be good or bad. They can do the right or the wrong thing. It all depends on the details.

In particular, it depends on how they are organized internally and what effects they have on outsiders (including natural systems as well as people). Assessing their internal structures and their consequences is controversial because it raises all the basic questions of justice.

For example, it you are a participatory democrat, you will value institutions just to the degree that they are internal democracies. Companies seem the least promising candidates, although democratic firms do exist. Both unions and governments range from highly democratic to highly authoritarian. Before you acknowledge the justice of a coercive strike, you will ask whether the union is democratic (and whether it is more or less democratic than the state that seeks to police it). You may embed in the definition of “democratic” some openness to outsiders, such as workers who are not already members of the union.

If, on the other hand, you are libertarian, you will value institutions just to the degree that the reflect individual, voluntary choice. Governments are the least promising, because very few citizens literally and actively consent to be governed. Governments are only legitimate to the degree that they create space for private agreements. Companies and unions are both potentially legitimate, but unions may be less so, to the extent that they coerce. Hayek claimed that unions “are the one institution where government has signally failed in its first task, that of preventing coercion of men by other men–and by coercion I do not mean primarily the coercion of employers but the coercion of workers by their fellow workers.”

For my own part, I am deeply pluralist. I believe in the value of maintaining a diverse set of institutional arrangements as checks against each other and as manifestations of human plurality and creativity. I am happy to see non-democratic institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church), strongly democratic ones, and many other forms. But I am not a relativist. I think that some organizations are better than others, and some combinations are more desirable than others. It’s just that an account of what makes organizations good must be nuanced and pluralist. One size doesn’t fit all.

On these grounds, I would defend unions as human creations that contribute to a pluralist public sphere. And I would accept that they will act coercively–within appropriate limits–when they strike. I am not positively enthusiastic about coercion, but I’d stress that states and companies also coerce. If you want (or need) to work, and a union has closed your workplace, then you have a complaint; but you also have a complaint if the company fires you arbitrarily or the state throws you in jail. Stronger unions make the second two forms of pervasive injustice less likely. A world with states, companies, and unions is more just than a world with just the first two.

See also my “The Legitimacy of Labor Unions” (2001), which is too moderate, China teaches the value of political pluralism, and should all institutions be democratic?

Lessons from our Confab Call with Community Rights US

Last week we held our April Confab call about the Community Rights movement here in the US and its implications for our democracy. We were joined by two dozen participants to learn more about how this movement has helped people to be more participatory, exercise truer democratic practices, and work to protect the well-being of communities. It was an informative call and we encourage you to check out the recording!

On the call, NCDD member Linda Ellinor interviewed Paul Cienfuegos who works in the Community Rights movement. Paul set the stage for how things are the way they currently are, by sharing the history of corporate influence in the US, how it has taken sovereignty away from the American people, and some of its effect on the way our democracy operates. He emphasized how, “we the people need to rediscover who we are and this history of corporate influence, in order for us to have the legal authority to create the society we want”.

We learned that the Community Rights movement has passed ordinances in 200 communities, over 9 states; and that by doing so makes it possible for a municipality to push back on laws that protect corporations and violate the welfare of the community. The Community Rights movement offers an important reflection on how to have civic engagement that doesn’t just pay lip-service to reinforce the current structures and corporate rule but instead empowers people to take back our democratic republic. Paul provided a resource doc for those interested in learning more about the Community Rights movement, which you can find here.

We recorded the whole presentation in case you weren’t able to join us, which you can access on the archives page by clicking here. We had several insightful contributions to the chat, which you can find the transcript of here. Access to the archives is a benefit of being an NCDD member, so make sure your membership is up-to-date (or click here to join).

Confab bubble image

We want to thank Paul, Linda, and all the Confab participants for contributing to this important conversation! To learn more about NCDD’s Confab Calls and hear recordings of others, visit www.ncdd.org/events/confabs.

Finally, we love holding these events and we want to continue to elevate the work of our field with Confab Calls and Tech Tuesdays. It is through your generous contributions to NCDD that we can keep doing this work! That’s why we want to encourage you to support NCDD by making a donation or becoming an NCDD member today (you can also renew your membership by clicking here). Thank you!

Vorarlberg Civic Council on Asylum and Refugee Policies

Problems and Purpose "The theme of asylum is a pressing, controversial sociopolitical issue. Vorarlberg, in solidarity with Europe, is a shareholder in the growing global society. For that reason as well as to fulfill obligations under international law, Vorarlberg must accept its due quota of refugees. Questions springing from this...