How was your Monday night? Did you spend it watching five straight hours of CNN candidate town halls? Whether you were glued to the TV, following along on Twitter, or had no idea this happened, never fear, we watched it all and have the biggest takeaways ready for you.
Five of the Democratic candidates running for president participated in a series of town hall forums focused on issues important to young voters. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, each appeared for an hour in the town hall series co-hosted by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College and the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.
According to Pew Research Center, Millennials (who will be 24-39) and Generation Z (who will be 18-24) will make up 37% of the electorate in 2020 and will be more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations. Over 75 million Americans are Millennials – young adults who came of age during one of the greatest economic downturns in the history of the country and believe that they will be “much worse off” than their parents. As we explored in our Financial Health of Young America report, this generation earns lower incomes and is less likely to be homeowners, while also being saddled with crippling student debt.
Given what we know about the unique challenges facing these young voters, last night’s town hall series gave us some hopeful and disappointing moments.
Student debt and college affordability
Americans now owe over $1.56 trillion in student loan debt, surpassing the total U.S. credit card debt by about $521 billion. At the same time, a post-secondary degree is still an individual’s best pathway to financial security, so it was no surprise that each candidate fielded questions about how they would tackle student debt and make college more affordable. It was encouraging to see all candidates supported some version of free college, expanding need-based aid, and making loan repayment easier. These solutions would ease the burden of earning a college education for all young people, but most importantly for students of color, who are most acutely impacted by the student debt crisis.
Health care and coverage
The Affordable Care Act made it possible for more than 8 million young people to gain health coverage, and the rate of 18- to 34-year-olds who were uninsured dropped from 30% to around 15% nationally. In addition, as of September 2017, nearly 13 million adults of all ages have gained Medicaid coverage across the country in the states that have implemented expansion. Candidates last night proposed health coverage solutions that build on the ACA and Medicaid, which will ensure that young people — especially those from lower-income communities — have access to affordable, comprehensive health care.
The evening’s conversation around civic engagement largely centered around voting rights for people who are currently and formerly incarcerated. Although this is an issue critical to our democracy, we were disappointed that none of the candidates talked about what they would do to encourage democratic participation among young people given that young voters are expected to play an even more significant role in 2020. With the event taking place on a college campus, the candidates missed an important opportunity to discuss ways to increase participation among the more than 20 million college students today, even as they address civic engagement issues among historically disenfranchised communities.
Today’s students were missing from the conversation
For a series of conversations billed as prioritizing issues affecting young people and held on a college campus, it was disappointing that the diversity of today’s students were underrepresented among those asking questions and in the solutions proposed. If you watched this town hall, you’d think half of all students today attend Harvard. In reality, almost half of all students are attending community colleges, and a good portion of today’s students have full-time jobs, are financially independent of their parents, or have children or dependents of their own. Beyond free college, candidates missed the opportunity to talk about meeting the unique needs of today’s students, including providing access to affordable childcare on campuses, emergency assistance for students struggling with food and housing insecurity, and other supports to help an increasingly diverse student population complete their degrees.
We need to meet young people where they are
Finally, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the evening did not happen on stage but on the airwaves. Young people are far less likely to get their news from TV and are four times more likely to get their news from social media than older Americans. If candidates truly want to grab the attention of young people during this election season, they should consider having these important conversations on the channels young people are watching the most – like YouTube, Netflix, or IG TV.
While the policies offered by the five candidates varied, last night’s town hall series shined a light directly on the most critical issues facing Millennials and Generation Z. These young people need practical solutions that recognize these obstacles while helping them achieve personal and financial success. And they are looking for a candidate who understands their generations’ potential, as well as the unprecedented? challenges they face.
Last night’s conversations were a promising start — and we hope the important issues affecting young people remain front and center throughout this election cycle and beyond.