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For New Grads, Activism Doesn't Pay the Bills

Liberal Youths Are Selling Out to Pay Their Debts

Natalie Hudson

No one goes into a career in activism thinking they'll make the big bucks. In fact, most people who enter socially conscious fields have reckoned with the reality of sacrificing meaty paychecks for fulfilling work. Recent college graduates, however, are finding the trade-off simply untenable as they slide deeper into a pit of college debt. And they're getting little help from the progressive movement.

Writing for In These Times, Adam Doster reports that by neglecting the economic plight of recent graduates, progressive leaders and activists are missing out on the "opportunity to utilize the ideology, size, and energy of the post-graduate generation." Doster notes that "college tuition has outpaced family income for the past 15 years," forcing more students to take on the financial burden themselves via loans. The average college graduate accrues nearly three-and-a-half times more debt than their counterparts did ten years ago, according to figures Doster cites from the Center for American Progress.

For graduates fresh out of college and saddled with exorbitant loan payments, a career in progressive activism can mean anything from years of sacrifice to near financial ruin. Among the few accessible jobs for progressive youths are those offered by large canvassing campaigns. Doster references the work of Dana R. Fisher, professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of the book Activism, Inc., who found that the canvassing industry -- a backbone of progressive, grass-roots outreach -- is exploiting young canvassers. Since the late 90s, Fisher says, many progressive campaigns have been outsourced to intermediary organizations, which focus on the "bottom line" instead of building local connections and developing the leadership abilities of their young employees.

Adding to the barriers, Doster finds that lefty think tanks primarily offer unpaid or low-wage internships in expensive cities like New York City or Washington, DC. With no prospect of financial sustainability, it's no surprise that these career-building paths usually attract wealthier applicants, while thwarting the bids of minorities and economically challenged graduates.

To be fair, as Jamilah King of Wiretap magazine points out, "many socially conscious organizations are run on paper-thin budgets that don't allow them to offer stipends to their interns." And King acknowledges that entering the job market while balancing one's financial burdens and social conscience is a difficult task. Yet there are some feasible options out there, and King points young people to them with a short list of available opportunities that allow graduates to put their progressive passion to use doing socially conscious work, without going broke in the process.

Go there: When College Ends, So Does Activism

Go there, too: Work for Change

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