Welcome to my “I Hear You” blog, chronicling my work as the leader of House Democrats’ Future Forum.
For the past three years, I’ve led the youngest House Democrats in listening to and engaging with millennials on the issues most important to them.
At first, I was afraid being among the youngest House members would have its drawbacks. After all, in the beginning of our service many of us were mistaken for interns (which I once was); later, we became the de facto IT help desk, aiding older members in setting up Snapchat or Instagram accounts.
But in time we earned respect as our caucus’ “millennial whisperers,” the people who could relate to the concerns and hopes of America’s largest, most diverse, and best-educated generation.
We took that relationship on the road: Now with 26 members, Future Forum has visited more than 30 cities to host town halls, workshops and roundtables where millennials learn, work, and gather: community colleges and universities, trade schools and union halls, business incubators and job-training programs, and – of course – coffee shops and brewpubs.
From Iowa City to Phoenix, Manhattan to Los Angeles, and Dallas to Chicago we’ve heard a similar refrain: Millennials feel that the cards are stacked against them, and perhaps most so by student loan debt.
More than 42 million past and present U.S. students now carry more than $1.3 trillion in debt. It’s a crushing burden that slows our economy and puts three of the biggest American dreams out of reach: starting a family, buying a home, and starting a business.
We also learned student debt all too often is a family matter. We heard stories from parents of millennials who “crashed” our events about how their son’s or daughter’s debt was dragging them down. I’ll never forget a mother describing the financial toll taken as her daughter boomeranged home after college – her debt kept her from affording a place of her own near her workplace – at the same time that she was moving her own parents into a costly assisted-living facility.
We heard a collective sense of guilt from our fellow millennials over parents mortgaging homes, working additional jobs, or delaying retirement. And – hardly shocking – millennials’ children suffer, too; people striving to support a family while also paying off student debt often can’t save for their children’s educations.
For me, this all sounded familiar. I was the first in my family to attend college, and today – as a newly married third-term Congressman expecting his first child – I still have almost $100,000 in student debt. I can only dream of buying a home in the community where I grew up and which sent me to Congress.
This isn’t about spoiled young folks carping about paying for what previous generations worked and paid their way through: No previous generation faced this. The cost of a four-year public university education has increased more than 300 percent since 1980, far faster than any other good or service, mostly due to declining public investment in higher education. If the price of a gallon of milk had risen at the same rate, it would cost about $19 now.
So Future Forum supports or has introduced ways to ensure that the education Americans want and need for 21st century careers doesn’t require incurring a lifetime of debt – ideas like free community college; letting student loan borrowers refinance their debt at the same low rate now offered on new loans; doubling the maximum tax deduction for interest paid on qualified education loans; and providing student loan forgiveness much sooner for teachers, police officers, public health workers & others who dedicate their careers to public service.
I introduced this latter bill after a young woman spoke up at a Future Forum event in Boulder, Colo. She was one year out of college, living her dream of working in the nonprofit sector. But she said she probably couldn’t afford to work such a job and pay installments on her student debt for the full 10 years required to achieve any loan forgiveness under current law.
Under my bill, her federal loan would be deferred and she would receive loan forgiveness in proportion to her years on the job – after every two years, a percentage of her balance would be cancelled. After 10 years, she would be debt-free.
Encouraging graduates to serve their communities, while helping to relieve the burden of student debt along the way, is forward thinking that benefits us all – the epitome of why we created Future Forum.
And stories like that of the woman from Boulder are what inspire us to push for change. As we continue listening to millennials across the nation, we’ll share some of those stories here in hope that they might inspire you to action, too.
We must not let millennials feel disenchanted, distanced and disenfranchised from our politics and policy. So, welcome to “I Hear You” –in fact, we all hear you and want to help you. We are listening and we are acting in the 115th Congress to restore every young American’s freedom to dream.
-Rep. Eric Swalwell