Government spending is a priority for young voters, not the national debt

March 17, 2021 Teen Vogue

As the U.S. faces down a continuing pandemic, a decimated economy, and a mounting climate crisis, many debates on Capitol Hill can be reduced to the following question: Should the federal government spend now to build a better world for future generations, or avoid adding to the national debt in the short and long term?

However tortured the congressional debate may seem, it is likely voters are clear on their answer: Spend now to save the future. Data for Progress and Groundwork Collaborative recently conducted a poll that found that 56% of voters, including 53% of Independents, “preferred to secure a healthy economy and planet for future generations than limit the national debt for future taxpayers.”

The consensus was even clearer among voters under 45, who preferred to invest now by a two-to-one margin. That’s unlikely to be a coincidence. Younger people may be most interested in massive public investments because they’ll have to live with the decisions made by today’s policymakers for decades to come.

Today’s younger people have grown up under several successive presidents (and Congresses) bent on shrinking public investment in favor of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich — and we’ve suffered the consequences. Younger generations have only ever known a U.S. economy careening from crisis to crisis — from energy and climate change to student debt, unemployment, and more — and a government that has increasingly refused to move real money to help. And of course, racial capitalism has ensured that Black, brown, and Indigenous people in every generation bear the worst of every calamity.

Unsurprisingly, support for spending now found strong majorities among other hard-hit demographics as well: 73% of Black voters, 64% of Hispanic voters, 58% of female voters, and 57% of voters without a college degree.

Overall, the poll shows a majority of voters believes that future generations will be better served by a healthy economy and planet than a small national debt. But those closest to the pain of the COVID-19, economic, and climate crises — and those who’ll have to live with those crises for years to come — agree even more overwhelmingly that the time to invest in a better future is now.

The median age of Congress has been climbing steadily for years, and now sits close to 59 for the current House and almost 65 for the Senate. As policy expert Heather McGhee has observed, (predominately) white men from the generations that benefited most from bold public investment and a broader safety net have consistently voted to cut a future, majority-POC public out of a similar deal.

This dynamic was exemplified recently when Republican senator John Thune of South Dakota (age 60), claimed he opposes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour because he earned $6 an hour when he was a teenager in the 1970s. In today’s dollars, a teenage Thune was making more than $20 an hour working summer vacations as a restaurant cook.

The Data for Progress poll shows voters of all ages are aligned with “the economic consensus on federal spending that addresses major national problems like the pandemic, the climate crisis, or long-term unemployment.” Economists and policy experts agree that public investments that raise living standards and enhance productivity and sustainability are better for future generations than forgoing those investments in pursuit of a smaller national debt.

Despite the jockeying on Capitol Hill, the real question isn’t about the urgency of spending now; people have been struggling for nearly a year to make ends meet and cope as they endure a once-in-a-generation pandemic. The better question is, when will Congress join young people of all races, marginalized people of all ages, and a growing majority of the public, and finally put our national needs ahead of our national debt?

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