When I graduated college in 1975, the U.S. was in the midst of a recession, and New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy. As a student, I’d commuted to Herbert Lehman College in the Bronx from my parents’ house, and I was eager to support myself and get experience in teaching or writing. While I came close to landing a position that fit my background in English and sociology, I lost to another candidate and never found a good job. Then the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), which had been signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, enacted a new provision that created jobs in the CUNY system (which served primarily working-class and first-generation students). Lehman College hired approximately 50 college graduates from around the state, including me. It was the equivalent of a WPA for the college-educated.
I’d worked since I was 17, but working full-time in a reading center was my first full-time professional job. I learned how to ask questions and give input rather than just follow directions. I learned how to evaluate students’ needs. . And I was paid a living wage with benefits that allowed me to move out of my parents’ house. After one year, I resigned from my CETA position, and the program itself expired after a couple of more years. But it helped me develop professional skills, and it convinced me that I really wanted to become a college professor – and that’s what I did.
In my work today, I see the challenges my students face after graduation. While some have landed jobs in their fields, others have faced long periods of unemployment and even longer periods of underemployment, the all-too-familiar story of post-recession young people. But unlike in the 1970s, there are no government programs designed to address their needs. And this is especially important for graduates from working-class families. Their degrees don’t neutralize class privilege. While the data on underemployment and wage gaps tends to focus on black graduates and women, often ignoring class as a category, graduates from working-class backgrounds – across races and genders – encounter significant economic challenges.
Some lack the social capital that opens professional doors for many more privileged graduates. Hard work is often not enough; networking is likely more effective than sending resumes to monster.com. Working-class students did not grow up among professionals, so they may be uncomfortable in interviews or at recruiting events. And they might not feel comfortable with – or have access to — professional style. The only white-collar workers I knew were secretaries, and I didn’t realize that by dressing like them I was presenting myself as less than professional.
Even more important, working-class people enter the workforce with economic constraints. Like their middle-class peers, many of them have taken out hefty student loans, but most working-class families do not have the savings to support an unemployed adult. Working-class graduates may need to contribute to the family income. So they are unable to take unpaid internships that might boost their prospects or hold out for the right position. They take jobs for which they are overqualified, joining the ranks of the underemployed. For many, the inability to find appropriate work confirms their fears of being found out as imposters. Working-class graduates who are gender non-conforming, people of color, or people with disabilities face double or triple jeopardy.
Now that the unemployment rate is down to 3.9%, pundits are optimistic that struggling young people will be able to get jobs. What’s less clear is whether those jobs will pay living wages. First, while the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, the labor market remains weak. If good jobs open up, those who are underemployed face competition from recent graduates who are, in employers’ view, untainted by years of service work. Further, studies show that wages are likely to remain depressed for 10 to 15 years. The young person who is fortunate enough to get a position that matches their education will still have to contend with wages that have not risen with the supposed increase in labor demand. Some have argued that real wages — a measure of pay that factors in inflation — have in face declined for workers in many industries.
Low wages and underemployment will have long term effects, but the government has done nothing to intervene. The CETA Program was approved and implemented under a Republican president in an era when American people across party lines still believed that government could make a difference, that it could and should intervene to buffer the effects of economic crises. No such legislation was proposed during the Great Recession, even after Barack Obama took office.
Instead of helping working people, today’s Republican administration is proposing cuts or restructuring (another name for cuts) to many programs such as Medicaid and SNAP benefits. It has also tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but it has undercut the program in several ways. Critics of these programs claim that they don’t work. But they do, as my experience shows. Along with participating in CETA, I got food stamps as a graduate student and during a period of unemployment—in total less than 18 months. I was under a lot of stress during those times, but at least I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself. I’m now on Medicare, which is much cheaper and much more efficient than any private insurance I had in over 40 years. Meanwhile, even though Trump denigrates federal programs, he quickly offered 12 billion dollars of relief to farmers hurt by his tariff policies. Even he recognizes that the federal government can soften economic blows.
The challenge is to create programs that serve the working class across the country – in all regions and regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or dis/ability. Some candidates and legislators are now advocating progressive measures such as free college tuition, Medicare for all, and student loan forgiveness. But no one has proposed a 21st century jobs program for the unemployed and underemployed. Our current Congress would not be sympathetic to such a proposal, but progressives should push the idea anyway.
The millennials who graduated in the years following the Great Recession have been called unlucky. Instead of blaming luck or lack of effort, we should examine the role of the federal government. It is time to revive our national memory of how job programs can address unemployment and underemployment, including jobs that don’t pay living wages. We need to remind people that living wages, benefits, and relevant job experience provide a strong foundation for workers and the national economy.
Michelle M. Tokarczyk
Michelle M. Tokarczyk, a professor of English at Goucher College, is a working-class scholar and poet who has published widely in the field. She has also served as President of the Working-Class Studies Association.