Geographic Inequality

Steve’s folks called with good news over the weekend. His mom’s brother and wife are going to retire just 20 minutes away from them in North Carolina. Steve’s folks retired to the area from Cleveland about ten years ago, and we’ve always been worried about their distance from extended family. Now, they have people to spend holidays with, when they can’t make the trip up to us.

They sent me a link on Zillow to their new house, so I spent a little time checking out the other homes in the area. Those homes — perfectly nice places with a couple of bathrooms and three bedrooms — are a quarter of the price of homes in my neck of the woods. This is why people are leaving the metropolitan regions, like Chicago and New York.

Not really a big deal, I suppose. If North Carolina can offer people a better quality of life than the older cities, then good for them. Families, like mine, that need alternative schooling options for disabled children and have work tied to the big cities can never go there, but there are many families who are more flexible. So, good for them, right?

However, if some areas of the country are homes of the rich and others are homes of the middle class, working class, and retirees, then it does open up some political problems.

Imagine if the representatives from some states become advocates not for the interests of the particular local industries, ie Iowa farmers, West Virginia coal miners, but for entire economic classes, ie New York Rich People and North Carolina Retirees. Then political debates would be less about opposing commercial interests and directly about class. I suppose it is that way now, but those economic tensions could be more obvious and competitive than they are already.

Any discussion about changing the electoral college or representation in Senate would also become strongly charged with these economic tension.

Sidenote — If we limit the voice of small population states in the electoral college and the Senate, it might make affairs more democratic, but it would also mean a massive disinvestment in the entire center of the country. There would be no federal projects for highway construction in Nebraska, say or farm subsidies in Iowa. There might be really cheap homes out there, but there would be no way to drive to those houses.

The growing affluence of big cities is going to have long term political implications.

Advertisements

Free College and Student Loan Forgiveness in the Democratic Debate

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., talk during in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last night, education policy was front and center. But only higher education. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have various proposals that aim at reducing the burden of college students and recent graduates. On the table are free college and student loan forgiveness.

Now, college tuition rates are insane. Some colleges are $73,000 for full cost of attendance. Yes, there are tuition discounts for merit and need, but lots of students pay full freight. That’s their sticker price. And some students do rack up significant amounts of debt, particularly if they tack on masters degrees, take a long time to graduate, and just make bad decisions.

You know that I’m highly sympathetic and have ranted about those issues for a while. But I’m worried about blank checks for college for a number of reasons.

It penalizes people who made hard choices to avoid debt: A school teacher who doesn’t take vacations but puts money in 529 accounts for her kids since birth. A college graduate who takes a boring job, rather than the dream job, to pay off the loans. A student who attends a community college for two years, before transferring to a four year college. The kid who goes to an in-state public college, solely because of cost.

It does nothing for students who can’t finish college, which may be even more of a serious crisis than debt.

It does nothing for students who need a degree from a trade school. Or don’t attend college at all, but still need training and employment support.

It does nothing to stop the cause of the problem – colleges. They are allowed to keep raising tuition, even at in-state public colleges, without any checks. Even, as they do in my state, waste buckets of cash on losing sports teams. And there is no pressure on them to improve quality. They keep replacing full time faculty with adjuncts.

There is no distinction between public and private colleges in their plans. A public college is a right, a private college is not.

As many have pointed out, it benefits the middle class without much trickle down help for working and lower class citizens.

Steve and I attended a grad school program that didn’t provide any funding for its grad students. Not even tuition. (Yes, majorly stupid, but let’s move on.)

I kept my loans manageable by working part-time, sometimes full time, at a policy institute at the same time as taking classes and writing a dissertation. I also taught a few classes. Steve taught a great deal, while doing his classwork. While students at other universities were building their CVs, we were ghost writing papers and teaching 50+ students at the Bronx Community College.

Even with all that, our combined student loan debt when we got married was over $75,000. We paid it off around my 50th birthday. We’re better off than most of our classmates, who were looking at bigger numbers. That debt was awful. It had a big impact on our careers and other life choices (children, homes). Grad school was a MAJOR financial train wreck. (I’m not even going to talk about the impact of beginning to save for retirement in your mid 30’s, rather than your 20’s.)

So, I am highly, HIGHLY sympathetic to anybody who wants to ease that burden on others. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with the current proposals, because they don’t check the colleges themselves, don’t distinguish between public and private colleges, penalize good behavior, and don’t help people who choose alternatives to college.

Travel to London, A 1% City

Our trip started in London. We only had three days with the first day a blur; nobody slept on the red eye going over.

Staggering around the Tower of London with serious jet lag.

We knew that we were going to make mistakes on this trip, and would chalk up those errors as a learning experience for subsequent trips. The first mistake was make making a firm schedule or reservations for the first day. We needed a nap, but instead we put in ten miles criss/crossing the city, because I had already purchased nonrefundable tickets for the Tower of London and had booked a table at some Gordon Ramsey gastropub. Both were lovely, but I was too exhausted to remember much.

Lesson 1. Don’t expect that anyone in my family will sleep on a plane. Lesson 2. Don’t make reservations for Day 1. Lesson 3. Don’t make reservations for anywhere. They’re totally unnecessary and cramp your style.

The last time I was in London was the early 90s. It has changed quite a bit. Back then, my boyfriend at the time used to talk about the rough crowds in the pubs where he tended bar. Cockney guys who would drink too many beers while watching soccer matches and then regular beat each other in the face with their signet rings. Left a mark, apparently. It had the corny Queen tourist stuff, just as now, but it was mixed with granny traditions and a working class vibe. Punks in big hair and big boots were common place.

Cranes and St. Paul’s

Now, it’s no different from New York City. Just as New York has changed and lost it’s gritty artist, music scene, so has London. Even with Brexit, the city was still booming. Construction cranes were everywhere building luxury apartments and work spaces.

Rather getting a “plowman’s special” at a family pub with a warm beer like I did on previous trips, we ate in hip restaurants with chilled Italian beers and modern interpretations of English classic fare. We ate really well.

One night, we sat at one of those open air pubs drinking with Jonah, who was very, very pleased to be of legal drinking age. At the next table, was a group of girls about his age. They clearly weren’t backpackers staying at an $8 a night hostel like I did at their age. Dressed in heels and nice outfits, they were probably doing a summer abroad through their private colleges or had an internship.

Drinks at an underground pub with no signs. Only locals know about it. Got loaded there.

I met up with a friend of mine who works in the financial industry there. Her son, who went to a fancy private school in Westminster Cathedral, is now at an exclusive, but surprisingly cheap by American standards, college where he consorts with the children of Russian oligarchs who have homes in several cities, including New York, and vacation homes in Sardinia. Over flaming cocktails, she told me about the lifestyles of the ridiculously rich.

The ridiculously rich aren’t tied to one country, but many. Places like London and New York City are just one their homes. Their money has changed the landscapes of those cities for both the good and the bad. Don’t waste my time with nostalgia for the old 42nd street; it was a dangerous dump. But places like this have squeezed out ordinary folks, as well as the artists and creative types. Local culture has been lost to Gucci handbag stores and faux culture.

Clowning around at the Tate.

Since we live so close to Manhattan and my husband works there everyday, London didn’t feel like a huge adventure. The museums were lovely and would go back to see the ones that we missed on this trip, but it wasn’t a trip into a different culture. After three days, I packed up the few evening outfits that I brought for the trip, and we got on a train in King’s Cross for Scotland.

For Things You Don’t Need

On Saturday night, my buddies and I rewarded ourselves for a long walk – my Fitbit was already way past 20,000 steps – with a beer and a burger at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest pubs in Manhattan and worth a visit if you’re in town.

After several hours of talking, which included such lovely topics as the new studies that found a connection between menopause and Alzheimer’s Disease and flaky college students, we started talking about politics.

I asked, “So, what do you think about the proposals that Democrats are starting to float about student loan forgiveness and free childcare?” Two of us have kids who are nearly done with high school, and the other never had kids. “Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?”

Our town pool has a special section that is just for older people. Nobody under 18 is allowed to be there. Every couple of hours, the life guards blow a whistle and everyone under 18 has to get out of the pool for 15 minutes, so the older people can do the side stroke in peace. The public library has senior reading clubs, introductory classes on email, and daytime movies. Without the buy-in from older citizens in the community, there’s a fear among local politicians that old folks will vote for people to defund those services. I’m sure those fears are justified.

People care about schools for a relatively short period of time. There care from the time that their oldest kid is five to when they’re about a sophomore in high school. Typically, parents are much more involved in schools for their oldest; subsequent kids are on auto-pilot. And then they stop caring about the local schools when they start thinking about SAT scores and colleges for their oldest and after their oldest fails to become the class president or the football captain.

Schools make a lot of enemies. For every kids that becomes the class president and the football captain, there are the parents of the hundred other kids who sit at the unpopular table in the cafeteria who want to throw a pitchfork into the school principal. Parents who aren’t in the audience for High School Awards Nights will never, ever vote for a school bond issue ever again. Screw ’em.

So, there’s only about ten to twelve years, when a person has a real stake in making better schools. And that’s why there are places in the country where teachers are paid around $30,000 per year and students have few chances to make it to college.

Childcare affects a family for three or four years, if you have multiple kids.

Student loans can haunt a person for ages, but for every person that defaults, there are nine others who paid off their loans working boring jobs and doing overtime.

And let’s be honest. Our grandparents didn’t have the material comforts that we have today. I mean we put in more hours at an office and have invested more in education, but that generation cut coupons and never bought prepared meals at Whole Foods. So, when they look at younger folks complaining about childcare costs, they’re thinking about how they survived on one income and never ever went on a vacation that involved an airplane.

So, really the question isn’t “”Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?” Instead, the real question is “would you vote for something that you worked really, really, really hard to pay for on your own, making lots of personal sacrifices, and destroying your own health in the process. And then the benefits went to people who you perceive to be privileged, entitled, smug, and unwilling to help you?”

My generation is in the middle. Gen-Xers have a foot in both worlds. We can remember the difficulties of juggling childcare and work, but we’re also done with it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Self-interest is a basic component of human nature. The founders knew that and created a democratic system based on that notion. With a system of checks and balances, ambition would counterbalance ambition. A large nation, divided up with federalism, would create a large state with a multitude of interests, all checking each other, so no one group would dominate and abuse others.

So, lecturing people that they should vote for schools, student loans, and childcare because virtuous people do that, is pointless. I think we should look to the model of the local town pool and figure out ways to make sure that everyone benefits from childcare centers, schools, and colleges. I’ve always thought that childcare centers and senior citizen centers should be housed in the same buildings. Invite people from the community to give lectures in the high school on their expertises and careers. Colleges could provide job training to people with autism or provide free tickets to concerts to people in the community.

Free childcare and student loan forgiveness might get headlines and tweets from the 30-something crowd, but it’s a tough sell to those who are freaking out about menopausal plaque on the brains and are counting their steps on a Fitbit.

Pie-in-the-Sky Proposals for College

Today, the buzz among the education folks that I follow on twitter is Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for student debt forgiveness. From the Daily Beast:

According to a Medium post detailing the policy, the debt cancellation would also apply for every person with a household income between $100,000 and $250,000, with the cancellation amount declining a dollar for every three dollars in income above $100,000, so that a person earning $130,000 would have $40,000 in cancellation. It would not cancel debts for people earning more than $250,000.

The immediate reply was from Phillip Klein at the Washington Examiner, who said that this plan was a cash handout to millennials and wouldn’t help Gen Xers who have already paid off that burden. His article then led to more angry tweets.

Whenever I interview a college student or a recent grad, the number one thing that always comes up is the cost of college and the noose of student loan debt. It is the rare family that has enough saved to choose the college of the choice for their kids without the concern about price.

I’ve talked with recent grads with over $100K in student loans. I’ve talked with others who worked three jobs to pay for school. I know people who will never, ever own a home, because they took out too many loans in grad school for a PhD program.

I talked with a student a few weeks ago (for an article that hasn’t been published yet), who had no clue that her family couldn’t afford a four-year college until she got her acceptance letter. Nobody is really sure how much money they’ll receive from a college until that final letter arrives.

This young woman’s family couldn’t contribute anything towards her college education, while colleges expected that she could find $50K per year. She could get about $7K in federal loans, but the rest would come from horrible private loans. But since her parents wouldn’t co-sign for the private loans, the point was moot. She went to a community college for two years before transferring to a local four-year school.

But she was exceptional kid. Most students like her wouldn’t have made it.

Making college affordable must be a big part of any 2020 Democratic platform. Student loan reforms are only one part of the problem and do nothing to stop that process that creates them. There has to be more money for lower-middle class families, easier transfer process between community colleges and four year schools, more social supports on the college campus, more inclusion for people with different learning styles, better pay for the majority of professors who don’t have tenure jobs, and great support for various career goals.

Workaholics

It’s Sunday.

I’ve already edited Essay #1 and gone to church. The Broadway play that I saw last week has me thinking about an essay that I want to write about journalism. Do here or do it elsewhere? Mmmmm. Thinking, thinking. I have to plan the chore chart for the week, but still must print out the weekly after school calendar for the fridge. Essay #2 is done and needs to shopped around to editors. I checked in on my mom who has a sinus infection. Ian needs to be walked around outside and needs his Kumon worksheets checked. Must call Jonah to see if he’s working or hungover. Weekend cleaning has to happen. I have a name of a housecleaner, but haven’t had enough time to interview and hire someone, so our bathrooms are seriously toxic.

It sounds like a lot, but it’s just life. Much of it shouldn’t really be categorized as work, like the kid and parent and house stuff. Even the writing stuff isn’t like a traditional job, because I love it and I’m not getting paid much.  I could quit and get a proper job that has regular on and off times and pays proper money, but I keep going because this lifestyle is working for me and my family at the moment.

I think about writing and ideas all day, every day. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about I could fix the eighth paragraph in a project.  If the document is on google docs, sometimes I will do the edits in the middle of the night on the iPad that is always on my night table. Once, when I logged into make edits during one of my bouts with insomnia and compulsive editing, I found my editor there looking at my document. Together, we edited an article at 2am. I was in bed the whole time.

Of course, I’m not working every single moment. Being a freelancer means that I can go to the gym for an hour and half whenever I like. I can take breaks from writing to play really dumb video games. I’m also doing laundry, driving Ian places, food shopping, making dinner, cleaning up after breakfast. Some days, I get so overwhelmed that I have to just read a romance novel for an afternoon. All that is work, but it’s not a job-work.

And then there’s social media. Pushing articles through twitter is just a part of the job of being a writer these days.

Ann Helen Peterson had a viral article in BuzzFeed a couple of weeks ago about how millennials became the burnout generation. Her article spawned a whole slew of copycat articles and more think pieces. Here’s one in the NYT.

Peterson writes,

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

Read the whole article. It’s a fun read.

But I don’t think this is just a millennial thing. I don’t even think it’s a modern writer thing.  Overworking is a way of life in certain industries in certain parts of the country.

My husband is in the investment banking industry, and he’s probably border line burnt out. With his 90 minute commute, he’s gone from the house for about 12 hours a day. He’s dealing with work e-mails on the weekend. It’s always on his mind. My brother the journalist, my brother in law the architect, my sister in law the teacher, my cousin the lawyer — everyone is working much crazier hours than their parents and everyone is tired. Those with kids are putting in much longer hours parenting than their parents ever did.

Now, some of this is by choice. There are certainly jobs that pay very well that have much more normal hours. I could get a job as a medical technician with a two year college degree and make a bazillion times more than I do now.  College administrators never look like they’re plagued with editing insomnia. We choose the burnout jobs for a variety of reason — prestige, excitement, big money, whatever.

The problem is when there are no alternatives. If people choose a crazy way of life, then that’s fine. But if crazy jobs are the only meal on the menu, then that’s not cool. Not everybody can take my hypothetical sane jobs in college administration or in a hospital. Are there enough options out there for people who want a steady salary with regular hours? I’m not sure.

The real problem with workaholism isn’t just that we’re too tired to do the more mundane chores on our lists. Rather, it’s that we don’t have enough time to live. We don’t have enough time to spend with our loved ones and make huge meals and to hike around a forest crunching ice, because breaking ice is super fun (that’s what Steve and Ian are doing right now). We don’ t have time to experiment with genealogy websites like I did yesterday and found that I’m related to half of Iowa and Bari, Italy. We don’t have the brain space to make new friends at the gym or read silly books. We live in our heads too much and not enough with our bodies.

So, on that note, I’m walking away from the computer for a couple of hours.

Dreary January

January always sucks here in the Northeast. It’s grey and cold. We’ve all had the same virus for the past three weeks, trading germs back and forth. I need to give the entire house a Clorox bath to get rid of these lingering evil bugs. Faded Christmas trees lay sad and lonely waiting for pick up by the garbage truck.

A story that I did in December was just published. I posted it here. Happy to talk about it in the comment section. I’m working on something totally different right now. It’s an upbeat story about a school in the South Bronx for emotionally disturbed children. (Yes, it’s a happy story.) I’m also editing a document right now for a long term project. So, there’s a lot of work to do.

I was at that South Bronx school earlier this week and had a great time, except for the horrible drive through the Bronx. With streets full of pot holes, sudden turns, unmarked roads, and drivers who don’t obey normal traffic rules, I was having anxiety attacks as I navigated my way there. But I did it. Yay me.

Jonah’s home still, which is awesome. Sniffling like the rest of us, he’s been looking at the career development website for school and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after graduation. What a bucket of stress!

Other kids in town are using their winter break to do informational interviews with alumna from their schools at various companies around New York City. I’m just hearing about this from other parents. Neither Jonah nor myself got the memo that this is what kids do during winter break now, until it was too late. So, he’s surfing websites about careers, rather than sitting in an office with a suit. Sigh. Parent fail.

There is a RIDICULOUS level on stress on kids about jobs. Here’s an article in Vox describing it. And this stress isn’t totally crazy. Millennials are burning out in their jobs. College graduates aren’t finding work.

I’m moving my family to a bunker in Vermont where we’ll make artisanal goat cheese.