Let’s Talk About Millennial Poverty

We followed the path we were told to follow. So how did we end up more poor than our parents?

Hanna Brooks Olsen
Jan 9, 2015 · 11 min read

Through college debt, we are minting a new generation of people with less opportunity, rather than more.

Even if you glossed right over the teachings of Thomas Piketty, you probably know that those who begin poor are more likely to stay poor. And boy howdy, is that true. When you are constantly fighting your way up from zero (or negative), you tend to stay that way. And when education is supposed to be the path out, if it leads to more debt, it’s more cyclical than linear. New grads no longer start from zero — they start with a negative balance.

You have to spend money to even have the hope to make money. And maybe not even then.

And yet, when most people think about poverty, they think something else; Maybe they think about a homeless man begging for change. Maybe they think of the “welfare queen,” (ugh, the racism of that idea is almost too staggering to bear) who bilks the government for money (when, of course, it is actually the wealthiest who take the most). Maybe they think about a family that looked a lot like mine did growing up (one provider, too many kids, receiving WIC and food stamps and every other kind of assistance we could and even then still living precariously close to poverty).

“Median wages have declined or remained unchanged in the last decade in four out of the top five industry sectors employing 18 to 24 year-olds.”

— Survey, The Young Invincibles

So I have to wonder: What if we stopped trying to decide who was poor based on appearance and actually looked at the financials of those who were scraping by? What if we calculated poverty not based on those who were literally already homeless (though to be honest we do a shit job of that, too), but rather based on everyone who is one missed shift away from being completely out of money and options?

What if we acknowledged that there are more poor people than we realize and that even doing literally everything prescribed by those with wealth does not guarantee wealth?

What if we stopped wringing our hands about the death of the middle class and did something to attempt to resuscitate it?

Hanna Brooks Olsen

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I wrote that one thing you didn’t really agree with. Interests include progressive policy, minor league baseball, and Oxford commas. Curious to a fault.