Peeling the 'Onion'

No Tears for Students on Capitol Hill

There were howls of protest when the Onion, our nation’s preeminent satirical newspaper, ran a story titled “Congress Takes Groups of Schoolchildren Hostage: ‘We Need $12 Trillion or All These Kids Die.’” The Capitol police were not amused.

The article was a spoof, of course. But what about that subtitle? Our lawmakers seem to be of two minds about kids and money.

The deficit hawks—just about every member of Congress—are ardent promoters of the economic well-being of future generations. Saving kids from the ravages of debt has emerged as a major justification for their deficit-reduction proposals. Congressional representatives along with state legislators are keen to spare their children and grandchildren, as they frequently remind us, the indebtedness that weighs so heavily on themselves, their consciences, and the nation’s future. After all, the size of our national debt could cramp kids’ ability to live like real Americans. And yet, when you look at the cuts, both those proposed and those enacted by these wizards of finance, you have to ask what kind of future they imagine will follow from their slashing frenzy, if not for their own children and grandchildren then for everyone else’s.

Here is one thing we know about kids’ futures: Education is key to getting a job, earning a living, paying taxes, and supporting those lawmakers. The unemployment rate produced by the Great Recession (now hovering at 9 percent) has underlined the inverse relationship between educational achievement and employment. Did you have a college degree? No? Sorry. What about high school? No? Too bad! The lower you fall on the education ladder, the greater the probability of unemployment, often long-term.

Isn’t it perverse, then, that the battle to save children from future indebtedness is being waged by cutting current education budgets? Shorter school years and school days, higher ratios of students to teachers, cuts in advanced-placement courses, the end of summer school and other remedial programs—just for starters. Our politicians have pitted the budget deficit against an education deficit. Guess which side is winning.

In Wisconsin, where the Republican governor and legislature weakened the teachers union last spring, nearly five thousand employees of local school districts retired (because they were eligible) during the summer rather than work under the new rules. The 2011 retirements were double those of the preceding two years. Wisconsin public-school students have lost their most experienced teachers and now find themselves in crowded classrooms overseen by less experienced teachers. In Alabama, a new immigration law has forced hundreds of children from public schools. Though not on the face of it a budget measure, keeping immigrant children from using Alabama’s schools saves money. Never mind that many are American citizens born of immigrant parents—students destined to become tax-paying citizens, if they can get an education.

The world of higher education has been roiled by continuing budget struggles over federally funded Pell Grants and student loans. Funds for Pell Grants are down by $4.6 billion this year, meaning that college-aged students with the greatest need will be cut out of higher education and therefore more likely to suffer extended bouts of unemployment over their lifetimes. Pell Grants, if you can get one, are not loans; they do not need to be repaid. But student-loan repayment begins soon after graduation. The Obama administration has tried to ease the repayment schedule for college graduates, but that doesn’t help graduates who can’t find work.

According to the Project on Student Debt, 2010 college graduates—9.1 percent of whom are unemployed—owe an average of $25,250. For 2011 graduates the average is estimated to be $27,200. (The unemployment rate of those who end their education at high school is twice that of college graduates. No doubt, there is a politician somewhere who would rejoice: “Great! Then they don’t need loans or Pell Grants.”) How will college graduates repay their loans? Good question: 10.6 percent of student loans are more than sixty days delinquent. In some parts of the country, the delinquency rate is 20 percent, according to a New York Federal Reserve report.

Maybe this explains the demography of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

While the Onion couldn’t verify the report that Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) cooperated in taking kids hostage, wasn’t their subtitle more or less on target? We need $12 trillion, and we don’t care that all these kids will be unemployed. 

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.

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