A Poorer Generation

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If you wanted to find a signature example of somebody who did not need to have his student loans forgiven, you might want to consider me.

I graduated from college in 1994 with about $26,000 of debt (in the equivalent of today’s dollars). I hated repaying it. It was a meaningful amount of money for a young journalist, and writing the checks was a monthly reminder of the frustrations that my parents and I felt over dealing with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the financial aid system.

If President Biden’s debt-relief plan had been enacted in the 1990s, I would have qualified, and I would have eagerly signed up. In hindsight, however, it would have been pretty hard to justify forgiving any of my debt. I eventually paid it off, without altering any big life plans. Over time, my income rose, as is the norm for college graduates.

Critics of Biden’s plan have made similar arguments since he announced it last week. Why, they ask, is the federal government giving a bailout to white-collar professionals, especially in today’s highly unequal economy? And how is it fair to people who have already paid off their loans?

These are complex questions, and thoughtful people will disagree about them, as the economist Arindrajit Dube pointed out last week. (My colleague Jim Tankersley writes about the passionate debate among economists here.) But for skeptics of loan forgiveness, I do think it’s worth grappling with the ways that the U.S. economy has changed over the past few decades — since members of Generation X, like me, and baby boomers were in their 20s and 30s.

Not your parents’ economy

For one thing, college debt has increased in recent decades. The average borrower who graduated from a four-year public college emerged with $26,700 in debt in 2020, according to the College Board. That was up 18 percent from the average level in 2000 (again, adjusted for inflation).

But the bigger change is not in these loan amounts. It’s in the broader economic conditions facing young workers. Over the past two decades, the U.S. economy has become much harsher for adults under 40.

This chart shows how incomes have changed for different age groups since the late 1980s. As you can see, a typical 40-year-old today earns only slightly more than a typical 40-year-old three decades ago, while typical seniors have much higher incomes than their parents’ generation did at the same age:

The changes in wealth are even starker. Americans in their 20s, 30s and even 40s are poorer today than younger adults were three decades ago:

A study by William Gale of the Brookings Institution and three other researchers concluded, “As for the millennial generation, their median wealth in 2016 was lower than the wealth of any similarly aged cohort between 1989 and 2007.”

That’s a remarkable — and grim — development, given how much G.D.P., stock prices and home values have grown over the same period. How could this be? One factor is that stocks and homes have risen so much since the 1980s that younger adults can’t buy into those markets as easily as their parents and grandparents could.

Many millennials also had the bad fortune of graduating into an economy weakened by the financial crisis of 2007-9 and the Great Recession that followed. Many companies have not expanded or raised wages much, creating fewer opportunities early in people’s careers.

Gale and his co-authors — Hilary Gelfond, Jason Fichtner and Benjamin Harris — note that millennials are also more racially diverse than earlier generations. People of color, especially Black Americans, have historically accumulated wealth less rapidly than white Americans for a complex mix of reasons. Among those reasons is intentional discrimination from the government during past decades that kept Black families from receiving subsidized mortgages, owning homes and passing down wealth to later generations, which could then build on itself.

Susan Dynarski, a Harvard economist who specializes in education issues and who grew up in a working-class family, was long skeptical about proposals to forgive college debt. She thought that people who had gone to college generally didn’t need government help, given the huge value of a college degree. But the emerging data has changed her mind, as she explains in a Times Opinion essay published this morning.

The people struggling to repay their loans tend to be those who attended a few semesters of classes at a public college or for-profit vocational programs and didn’t graduate, she explains. Often, these borrowers suffered because of funding cuts at community colleges or because of the government’s failure to regulate for-profit programs. And they suffered because of how weak the economy has been for most Americans over the past two decades.

The case against

These factors obviously don’t end the debate over Biden’s plan. There are still arguments against it.

The plan will benefit some young professionals who really don’t need help but will gladly accept it, as I would have. The plan will also do nothing for the many Americans who never attended college (although Biden has signed or proposed several other big policies aimed at the working class). There are also thorny questions about whether debt cancellation encourages colleges to keep raising their prices, under the assumption that more debt cancellation may follow in the future (as Megan McArdle of The Washington Post has argued).

Yet before anybody tells millennials to toughen up and follow the same path as previous generations, it’s at least worth remembering that they have never really had that option. Their economic prospects have been worse than those of their parents and grandparents. Biden’s plan won’t erase that reality, but it will narrow the gap for millions of people.

Related: The Times wants to hear how Biden’s plan will affect you.



  • Donald Trump asked for an outside arbiter to find any documents among those seized by the F.B.I. potentially covered by executive privilege. But the request may be too late.

  • President Biden will travel to Pennsylvania this week to give a speech on the threat to American democracy.

  • Senator Lindsey Graham predicted that a prosecution of Trump would lead to “riots in the streets.” He later said he was “not calling for violence.”


Advice from Wirecutter: A Wi-Fi extender will bolster your internet.

Lives Lived: Carl Croneberg, a deaf Swedish immigrant, helped write the first comprehensive dictionary of American Sign Language and coined the term “Deaf culture.” He died at 92.


An icon rolls on: Serena Williams advanced to the second round of the 2022 U.S. Open, her final tournament, in front of an electric, star-studded crowd last night at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

A conscious uncoupling in the N.F.L.? The San Francisco 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo agreed to a restructured contract that keeps him in town as young quarterback Trey Lance’s backup, bringing months of hand-wringing to a close. The deal also gives the Niners flexibility to move the veteran to another team when the time is right.

An American soccer star stays put: Chelsea will not send out U.S. men’s national team star Christian Pulisic on loan, after all. The news is a double-edged sword for U.S. fans, who want their captain to get more playing time ahead of the World Cup, but would probably prefer he be put in bubble wrap until then.


A coffee start-up

If you live in New York, you’ve probably noticed Blank Street, which opened its first coffee cart in 2020 and now has 40 shops. Its creators come from the world of venture capital, and their mission is to make coffee that’s cheaper than Starbucks, tastier than Dunkin’ and brewed by an automated system that requires fewer workers.

Skeptics have decried Blank Street’s expansion, saying it pushes out local businesses. But if its strategy catches on, it may be a sign that coffee customers are now more interested in price and convenience than in atmosphere, Julia Moskin writes.


What to Cook

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. NASA’s third space shuttle — Discovery — launched 38 years ago today, after multiple delays.

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