A Generation in the Red

Published on
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the Los Angeles Times

A Generation in the Red

Bush's tax rebates won't do much to help us younger, debt-laden working stiffs.

by
Erica Sackin

Recession got you down? Not to worry. Any day now, everyone who filed a tax return and earned less than $75,000 last year can look forward to some extra cash. The Bush administration put the first recession-special tax rebate checks in the mail, just in time to save our failing economy.

Or not. Food and gasoline prices are on the rise. Home prices are crashing. Our economy has been shedding jobs consistently since January. Not surprisingly, the Federal Reserve came out with a study last week showing that personal debt -- that is, not including mortgages -- rose a sharp $15.3 billion in March, hitting an all-time high of $2.6 trillion.

Given all this, Bush's rebate consolation prize isn't doing much to console me or, I doubt, anyone else of my generation. I'm a gainfully employed 27-year-old, and I use my credit card to buy food because I only have $12 in my bank account. I fear getting sick -- not because I don't have insurance but because I couldn't afford the co-pays and deductible. It's hard for me to see how an extra $300 or $600 is really going to be, as Bush promised, "a shot in the arm to keep a fundamentally strong economy healthy."

Someone please tell me, are these rebates going to do anything more than help us pay off our credit card bills?

Americans 25 to 34 carry more debt than any other generation in history. According to the public policy research institute Demos, college graduates leave school with about $20,000 in student loans. We also have more credit card debt: $4,358 on average, 47% higher than young people in 1989. Our job security is way down too, with an increasing number of us being hired for "temp" jobs instead of as full-time employees. Whatever the bosses call it -- "perma-lancer," "independent contractor" -- it translates the same: long hours with no benefits and no severance when they let you go.

Trust me, working three jobs without benefits is only romantic for a year or two. After that it's scary. And it's not just me charging my milk and eggs; 45% of Americans 34 and under use a credit card for basic necessities such as rent and groceries.

Perhaps I'm being too cynical. Economies go through ups and downs. Maybe these tax rebates actually will help. Or at least, maybe we've already hit rock bottom and have nowhere to go but up.

But to my untrained eye, the problem appears to have surpassed the point at which even a $153-billion package -- a tiny fraction of what American consumers owe in personal debt -- can save us. The secure, full-time jobs with benefits that once kept people my age afloat, that created the financial security to settle down and start families, are evaporating. In the meantime, our government is cutting basic social services while charging up its own deficit on corporate tax breaks, a couple of wars and, yes, even by sending millions of us a few hundred dollars in tax rebates.

Sure, the extra cash is nice -- maybe I can get American Express off my back about those late fees -- but where's the long-term solution? I, like a good number of people in my generation, live paycheck to paycheck. If I lose my job or face a medical disaster, what safety net is going to catch me?

Erica Sackin is a writer who works at a public interest communications firm in New York.

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

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