What has Obama done for young vot­ers?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

“What have you done for me lately?” It’s a ques­tion that vot­ers im­plic­itly ask politi­cians, es­pe­cially ones they have sup­ported and who are seek­ing their votes again. And it’s a ques­tion that young vot­ers in par­tic­u­lar may be ask­ing Barack Obama, whom they sup­ported by a 66 per­cent to 32 per­cent mar­gin 13 months ago.

It’s a ques­tion that is ob­vi­ously on the minds of some thought­ful Democrats. They’ve no­ticed that un­em­ploy­ment among the young is well above the na­tional av­er­age — it reached 27.6 per­cent among those ages 16 to 19 in Oc­to­ber.

They’ve no­ticed that an in­creas­ing num­ber of young peo­ple — about half of those be­tween ages 18 and 24 — are still liv­ing in their par­ents’ homes. They’ve no­ticed that en­try-level work is scarce, as older work­ers cling to their jobs.

So they’re urg­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Demo­cratic Congress to do some­thing to help young peo­ple. But they seem to be hav­ing a hard time com­ing up with so­lu­tions that match the scope of the prob­lem.

For ex­am­ple, John Podesta, chief of staff in the Clin­ton White House and head of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, urges in Politico that Congress make a “strate­gic in­vest­ment” in ex­pand­ing Amer­iCorps, Vol­un­teers in Ser­vice to Amer­ica and Youth Corps.

He ar­gues force­fully that th­ese pro­grams help com­mu­ni­ties and pro­vide valu­able work ex­pe­ri­ence for those en­rolled. He says the ex­pan­sion he pro­poses would cost less than $1.5 bil­lion — small change in to­day’s Wash­ing­ton.

But he’s only propos­ing to cre­ate 150,000 jobs, a drop in the bucket when some­thing like 3,000,000 Amer­i­cans un­der 30 are un­em­ployed.

Mor­ley Wino­grad and Michael Hais, co-au­thors of the in­sight­ful “Mil­len­nial Makeover,” also want gov­ern­ment to do more for young peo­ple. Writ­ing on the new­geog­ra­phy.com Web­site, they en­dorse pro­pos­als for cre­at­ing in­tern­ships, loan for­give­ness pro­grams and “mis­sion crit­i­cal” jobs in such fields as health care, cybersecurity and the en­vi­ron­ment. Plus, “in­creased en­tre­pre­neur­ial re­sources (should) be made avail­able to youth.”

All that sounds kind of nifty, but it leaves many ques­tions unan­swered, start­ing with the price tag — and whether gov­ern­ment can read­ily cre­ate work that is use­ful in the real world. The ex­pe­ri­ence of the Com­pre­hen­sive Em­ploy­ment and Train­ing Act (CETA) pro­gram, put out of its mis­ery in the re­ces­sion year of 1982, is not en­cour­ag­ing.

Nei­ther is the prece­dent of the New Deal jobs pro­grams of the 1930s. Then, tal­ented ad­min­is­tra­tors like Harry Hop­kins em­ployed mil­lions in a mat­ter of months. But that would be im­pos­si­ble with the en­cum­brances of to­day’s civil ser­vice, due process, civil rights and en­vi­ron­men­tal rules, even if Barack Obama could find some­one as able as Mr. Hop­kins.

The un­com­fort­able re­al­ity is that cre­at­ing many mil­lions of use­ful, in­ter­est­ing, psy­chi­cally re­ward­ing new jobs is some­thing only the pri­vate sec­tor can do. And it does it, as we saw dur­ing the pros­per­ous quar­ter-cen­tury from 1983 to 2007, in ways that gov­ern­ment plan­ners are un­able to pre­dict.

In the mean­time, the big-gov­ern­ment poli­cies of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Demo­cratic Congress have worked to sti­fle pri­vate-sec­tor job cre­ation. A large share of the $787 bil­lion stim­u­lus pack­age has gone to keep cur­rent state and lo­cal pub­lic sec­tor em­ploy­ees on the pay­roll (and pay­ing union dues). That does noth­ing for young peo­ple seek­ing work.

In ad­di­tion, the Democrats’ health care bills would raise the cost of health in­sur­ance for young Amer­i­cans, who would in ef­fect be sub­si­diz­ing their el­ders. And the stag­ger­ing fed­eral deficits that, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, loom as far as the eye can see will mean more na­tional debt that young Amer­i­cans will have to pay off.

Barack Obama in his au­to­bi­ogra­phies records how he spurned pri­vate-sec­tor work and opted in­stead for com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing and po­lit­i­cal of­fice. Pub­lic-sec­tor ca­reers can pro­vide good in­comes and the sat­is­fac­tion of do­ing use­ful work — but only for a com­par­a­tive few. A vi­brant and com­pe­tent pub­lic sec­tor de­pends on a vi­brant and com­pe­tent, and much larger, pri­vate sec­tor.

En­cour­ag­ing the growth of the pri­vate sec­tor did not seem to be a prob­lem when Mr. Obama be­gan his cam­paign in Fe­bru­ary 2007, when un­em­ploy­ment was at 4.5 per­cent. It is cer­tainly a prob­lem now, with un­em­ploy­ment at 10.2 per­cent. Thought­ful Democrats can see that their party has not done much lately for the young vot­ers, who pro­vided 80 per­cent of their victory mar­gin in 2008. But they’re hav­ing trou­ble fig­ur­ing out what to do.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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