Is Obama losing young adults?
By Josh Hicks,
Timothy A. Clary — AFP, Getty Images
“The unemployment rate for Americans 18-29 is 11.6%.”
“When new graduates find jobs, their starting salaries tend to be lower than those who graduated a decade earlier, and may never catch up.”
“Student loan debt is now over $1 trillion.”
“According to the most recent Harvard Institute of Politics study, just barely half of young people approve of Obama’s job as president, and only 41% approve of his handling of the economy.”
— From a fact sheet on the Crossroads Generation Web site
The Super PAC American Crossroads has teamed up with the Young Republican National Federation and the Republican State Leadership Committee to produce a spinoff super PAC known as Crossroads Generation. That group launched a social-media initiative this week to “reach, persuade, and mobilize young voters for change in the 2012 elections.”
The Web site for this group shows a number of videos featuring young adults who complain about various ways in which their quality of life has deteriorated during President Obama’s time in office. It also includes a fact sheet with 11 negative claims, five of which we’ve listed above.
The goal for Crossroads Generation is clear: peel away some of the youth voters who supported Obama so strongly in the 2008 election. We examined the source information for some of the group’s claims to determine whether they painted an accurate picture.
The unemployment rate for Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 was indeed 11.6 percent in April, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Note: compiling this data requires multiple queries, since the BLS does not track the 18- to 29-year-old demographic by itself.)
Crossroads Generation seems to be pointing out that the unemployment rate is exceptionally high for young adults. After all, the overall unemployment rate has remained below 9 percent since October 2011, and it never reached higher than 10.6 percent even during the recession.
That means young adults have fared especially bad during Obama’s tenure, right? Not really.
The unemployment rate for ages 18 through 29 was between 1.4 and 1.6 times the overall unemployment rate for every year we checked between 1989 and 2012. In April of this year, it was 1.5 times the overall rate, which is right on target.
In terms of starting salaries for young graduates, a study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute shows that inflation-adjusted pay has dropped 5.4 percent for young college graduates and 11.1 percent for young high school graduates compared to a decade ago. (Crossroads Generation cited this report indirectly by way of a Wall Street Journal article.)
As we’ve already mentioned, this trend pre-dates the Obama administration. Wages started falling in 2001, with inflation-adjusted pay rates generally moving downward since then. A few brief spikes have occurred, but they never brought wages to 2001 levels. (See Figure J: Average hourly wages for young workers, by education).
We noticed something interesting while combing through the policy institute’s study. It shows that unemployment rates for workers age 25 and under — admittedly a different demographic from the one Crossroads Generation mentioned — has been roughly twice that of the overall workforce since at least 1969. That provides further confirmation of the trend we noticed while examining BLS data for the 19-through-29 age demographic.
The institute’s report concluded that “unemployment of young workers is extremely high not because of something unique about the Great Recession and its aftermath that has affected young people in particular, but because young workers always experience disproportionate increases in unemployment during downturns.”
One could argue that the Economic Policy Institute was simply playing apologist for the Obama administration. But the report used BLS data, and it cited a long list of other trends to make an overall point that the “labor market for young graduates remains grim.”
As for student-loan debt, the total amount has exceeded $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and FinAid.org, an online guide to student financial aid information. But this number means nothing without context. To find that, we need per-student averages.
The average educational debt for all bachelor’s-degree holders in 2011 was $33,247, representing a 4-percent increase from the previous year. It’s important to note that this number has almost always risen, according to the tables available through FinAid.org, which bases its data on projections and historical records from the 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.
Overall, the average increase during Obama’s first three years in the White House was 6.2 percent, compared to 3 percent during the last three years for President George W. Bush and 4.6 percent for 1993 through 2011, which represents the entire period listed in the FinAid.org tables.
Mark Kantrowitz, a statistical and policy expert who publishes FinAid.org, said Congress deserves much of the blame for this rise, since GOP lawmakers insisted on trimming funds for the federal Pell Grant program — an area where Obama wanted to increase funding. He noted that students who don’t receive grants to help pay for college often make up the difference with loans, which obviously adds to the total amount of borrowing.
If Kantrowitz is right, the student-debt numbers reflect more poorly on Congressional Republicans than they do on the president. It’s worth mentioning that Senate Republicans last week also blocked a Democratic bill to preserve low interest rates on student loans — the two sides could not agree on how to pay for the lower rates.
Finally, Crossroads Generation said that “barely half of young people approve of Obama’s job as president, and only 41% approve of his handling of the economy.” The group cited a study from the Harvard Institute of Policy, but it once again failed to provide context.
The Harvard report mainly points out that Obama’s poll numbers among young adults have drastically improved since fall 2011. In fact, a headline for the report reads: “President beginning to reconnect with and recapture support of America’s 18- to 29- year-olds.”
The analysis said that Obama’s approval rating among this demographic had increased six percentage points since fall 2011 to reach 52 percent. In terms of the president’s handling of the economy, the approval rate was 41 percent with this age group, representing a 9-percent improvement over the same time span.
Crossroads Generation has taken a glass-half-empty approach to the polling data, but the fact remains that Obama’s numbers have risen considerably among young adults, according to the Harvard study.
Crossroads Generation vice president Kristen Soltis responded to our overall analysis by saying that the group’s fact sheet didn’t make most of the arguments we’ve criticized. She said the super PAC was merely trying to show that “young Americans are facing an incredibly difficult moment.”
“We put out a fact sheet to pull together data on what young Americans are feeling day to day,” Soltis said. “The problems that my generation is facing are years in the making. But it’s clear to me that young voters were hoping for more from Obama, and that their votes are up for grabs this year.”
The Pinocchio Test
Crossroads Generation cited legitimate studies and data sources in its fact sheet, meaning nothing was factually incorrect. But at least four of the claims lack important context.
The jobless rate is relatively high for young adults right now, but that’s the case for every demographic. And even though the unemployment rate for adults between the ages of 18 and 29 is about 1.5 times the rate for the rest of the workforce, this has been par for the course under all economic situations.
In terms of starting salaries, the number has dropped for this demographic compared to a decade ago, but the downward trend started during Bush’s first term.
As for student-loan debt, the rate of increase has grown under Obama, but Republicans have blocked some proposals that arguably could have slowed the trend.
Finally, the poll numbers cited by Crossroads Generation may look unflattering at first glance, but they actually show a drastic improvement in the president’s approval ratings among young adults.
On balance, the misleading claims from this group earn Two Pinocchios.
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