Two months ago, young voters did something that most of Washington, D.C., didn’t expect. We actually increased our share of the electorate from 2008, leading to an epidemic of dropped jaws after months of pundits lowering expectations for our cohort.
The president’s re-election was made possible by an electorate even younger and more diverse than the coalition of four years ago. This is the new normal: three presidential elections in a row of historically high youth turnout. Now the big question facing the White House and Congress is what can be done to court this increasingly powerful cohort.
The good news for Washington is that we’re not just another interest group. We’re the future of the country. And there are lots of helpful things Congress can do for our generation, many of which actually help with the long-term fiscal outlook while growing the economy now.
Young Americans care about a broad range of issues facing Congress: the economy, immigration, LGBT equality, climate change and voting rights. And we’ve made some progress on crucial issues. Bipartisan crowdsourcing investment legislation should make it easier for young entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. And Obamacare has already extended health insurance coverage to millions of young Americans.
But we also have some bad news. Youth unemployment increased in December to 12.1 percent, according to the Department of Labor. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, unemployment is now more than 16 percent. Growing the economy is the No. 1 issue facing our generation. So what can be done?
First, do no harm. We need to stop cutting employment and training services for low-income young people. And we need to keep student loan interest rates from doubling this summer. A humble plea: Give us some certainty by passing a fix that lasts longer than 12 months this time.
Congress could go further by providing the same loan-forgiveness benefits to young entrepreneurs who create jobs as they do to young people who find work in the public or nonprofit sectors. And we could apply some principles of competition to higher education by making costs and job placement outcomes more transparent to students and their families.
Other action is possible. Congress could pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul, or at least the DREAM Act, and welcome millions of new Americans as citizens. In the process, Congress would help produce millions of jobs, raise huge amounts of tax revenue and help stabilize Social Security and Medicare, while making our country a better place to live for all of us. This should be a no-brainer.
Other problems should be even simpler to fix. For example, far too many of us tried to vote this year only to face hourslong lines or learn that an issue with the Department of Motor Vehicles had snagged our voter registration.
While states and localities can and should continue to administer our elections, Congress has a responsibility to act. First, Congress should fill the empty seats on the Election Assistance Commission so it can actually commit to assisting elections. Second, Congress can pass legislation providing limited financial assistance for adoption of online voter registration and sounder direct implementation of “motor voter.” These sorts of systems, pioneered in states such as Arizona, Utah and Washington, help cut costs over the long term while improving election accessibility and security.
Lots of eyes in D.C. are on the millennial generation right now. Our generation will keep showing up. So our eyes are looking back at you, waiting to see whether Congress will step up to address these challenges.
Matt Singer is the executive director of the Bus Federation, a network of youth-led grass-roots organizations mostly in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states, and he is a board member of Young Invincibles.