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Outnumbered, Outvoted, Out of Clout on the Hill

By Rene Sanchez and Audrey Gillan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 1, 1997; Page A01

At 32, Richard Thau is not married, owns no home, has no children. His investments are modest, he has no plans to return to college, and he is decades away from reaping any of the health benefits the federal government bestows on senior citizens.

For all of those reasons, the balanced budget agreement that swept through both chambers of Congress yesterday and Wednesday and will likely be sent to the White House for the president's signature early next week [Details, Page A14] is hardly cause for celebration. To Thau, it is another stark sign of his generation's profound lack of political muscle.

Amid the deal's $94 billion in targeted federal tax cuts, the first in 16 years, both parties are largely ignoring a sizable but politically disorganized group: the millions of single, working young adults across the nation obscured in the great shadow of baby boomers and elderly voters who still call most of the shots in American politics.

"People in their twenties and thirties without families are political nonentities in this budget," said Thau, who leads Third Millennium, a nonpartisan advocacy group for younger voters. "We're not getting the tax breaks, and we're still going to have to foot the bills for everyone else, especially when the baby boomers start retiring."

That lament is resounding across a generation in the aftermath of a budget pact that offers something for practically everyone else – sparing the elderly from big hikes in health premiums, giving parents a tax break for each child they have, making tuition more affordable for college students, and allowing investors to pocket more capital gains.

But even some members of the generation that is just out of college or in the first stage of careers say they have mostly themselves to blame, given their chronically low election turnout and lack of political organization in Washington.

"There is no lonelier segment of the population in politics right now than the so-called Generation X," said Alexander Jutkowitz, 29, who works for Global Strategy Group, a firm that conducts polling and market research of young adults. "It's disappointing, but the political reality is that if you usually don't vote in great numbers, or don't lobby with any force, no one has any reason to pay attention to you."

By some estimates, the interest of young adults in government and politics has sunk to an all-time low, despite an array of recent national campaigns – such as MTV's popular "Rock the Vote" rallies – to prod them to the polls. Some analysts say the percentage of young adults who vote in presidential elections, which has never been high but showed new signs of growth in 1992, tumbled below 30 percent last year.

Jutkowitz said one reason for the apparent apathy is that, more than ever, young voters do not feel government playing a large role in their lives. In many surveys, a majority of young adults expressed serious doubt that federal programs such as Social Security or Medicare will even exist when they reach retirement age.

"They aren't expecting much government paternalism," he said. "There's more of a survival-of-the-fittest mentality among them."

Another problem is a demographic one: The baby boom generation that has reached middle age dwarfs the generation in its twenties and thirties that follows it. There are roughly 50 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 30, but more than 75 million people who were born in the late 1940s and 1950s. Meanwhile, the number of people born since 1980 is nearly as large as the baby boomer cohort.

Young adults are sandwiched between those two groups, and their diffuse interests are hardly represented in Washington, at least compared with other generational groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons, which boasts 33 million members.

The political clout of that organization and the traditionally strong turnout of senior citizens at the polls are among the reasons fundamental reforms in federal entitlement programs such as Medicare, with growing costs that will soar even higher once baby boomers begin retiring, were not tackled by either party in the budget.

Several attempts in recent years to start large lobbying groups for young adults have fizzled. Those that remain are growing but still quite small. Third Millennium, for example, has only 2,000 members.

"We're fighting a losing battle right now, especially on the entitlements," said Chris Cuomo, the 26-year-old son of former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo (D) and a board member of a policy group called the 2030 Center, which assesses issues from the perspective of young voters. "The budget shouldn't be condemned – it does some good things – but it's mostly about making political points with voters now, not dealing with the future."

Among some young adults in the Washington area, disappointment with the budget agreement is palpable.

"Why should a person get penalized for not having children?" asked Matt Peters, 34, a banker who lives in Arlington, one evening this week at a downtown Washington bar. "I don't mind tax breaks, but it should be equal. At the moment, I don't feel as if I have gotten anything out of the budget."

Pam Tyler, a single, 32-year-old human resources coordinator from Silver Spring, agreed with him. She is paid less than $30,000 a year but says she knows of no tax breaks for which she'll be eligible.

"The late 20-somethings and the 30-somethings are like the lost generation because we don't have as much representation," she said. "There are more single women of my age with no children now than there were many years ago."

But other young adults professed no anger with the budget, saying they believed that it is simply a fact of life in the country that the taxes of young working adults should be used to provide breaks to the elderly or to families with children. Those people, Washington officials could reasonably argue, have higher expenses.

"I think it's fine if tax breaks go for people who have kids going into college, and it seems natural that young people have to pay more for the older people when they retire," said Walter Overby, a 26-year-old computer programmer lunching on Capitol Hill yesterday.

"I'm not sure there are many things my age group really needs from the government," said Jordan Matsudaira, 26. "It makes sense to give tax breaks to people with kids."

And Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster, said that by erasing the deficit and limiting the scope of the federal government, the budget agreement may offer just the kind of benefits that many younger voters have been demanding.

"In a way, it's a moral victory for them," she said. "A lot of them say in polls that they want a limited, less intrusive government, and that's what this represents."

Staff writer Clay Chandler contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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