Money Minder

By The Insider
Sunday, February 26, 2006

If awards were given for gloomiest book title, it's hard to imagine any current tome more deserving than Anya Kamenetz's "Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young." Phew, talk about a book you probably won't see on any critic's summer beach reading list. Apparently "Life's a Drag and There's Nothing You Can Do About It" was already taken.

But if the title is heavy-handed (the author admits that the subtitle "was sort of a marketing thing") it does convey the dire straits of many young people who face staggering student loan and credit card debt and are unable to find jobs that pay enough to help them dig out.

Kamenetz, who will read from her book at Politics and Prose at 7 p.m. on Friday, is a recent Yale grad who now pens a column called "Generation Debt" for the Village Voice. She says she wrote the book not as a self-help guide, but as a wake-up call for peers, parents and policy makers.

"The main idea of the book is that this generation won't do as well as our parents and that's new in America's history," she said in a phone interview last week. She adds that the lack of affordable health care and the sharp rise in college education costs have exacerbated the problems for young people.

"What's really changed is the importance placed on getting a college degree is more emphasized now than ever before," she says. "Based on the growing demand, the costs have been rising faster than inflation. That's the bind. Federal aid has increased, but it has shifted heavily from grants to loans." To help pay for college, students are borrowing heavily -- particularly on their credit cards. According to a 2005 survey Kamenetz quotes in her book, nearly 25 percent of all students are "putting their tuition directly on plastic." Gulp.

So, does going to college still make sense financially? "I would never want to say that college isn't worth it," Kamenetz says. "But it should only be right for you if you have the maturity to navigate through it and the financial aid."

Kamenetz addresses the plight of young underemployed people as well. "That the majority of young people in this country are wasting years of their lives in low-wage, low-skill jobs is an economic and moral disaster," she writes. She wants the big national chains that employ low-wage workers to do better by them, invest in them as valuable employees and, with government incentives, provide training, health care and other benefits. For young people who may not think college is right for them, she points to resources such as the book "300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree."

Despite "Generation Debt's" glum title and her grim analysis, Kamenetz isn't entirely despondent. She offers basic remedies for the debt-prone: Live within your means; save as much money as you can; cut up credit cards; consolidate debt; have serious conversations with your parents about money. And she asks the government to take an active role in such things as making sure every qualified student can afford to pay for college. She also pushes Congress to reinstate usury laws nationwide to reduce credit card interest rates and advocates a nationwide student movement to push for financial aid reforms. As an example, she points to VA21, a Virginia student-led political action committee that lobbies on issues related to higher education. "I see reasons for hope," Kamenetz says. "Young people are waking up to these issues." Joe Heim

Kamenetz will read from her book on Friday at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. 202-364-1919.

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