To reach young voters

September 16, 2004|By Paul Andrew and Jonathan Zaff

AMERICA'S LEADERS hold a dangerous, false and widely held assumption that young people's issues are vastly different from those of older adults.

On the contrary, polls show that the top issues among all voters are the top issues among young adults. With that in mind, if Sen. John Kerry and President Bush are interested in mobilizing a few million extra young voters, the message isn't very complicated: It's the economy for us, too, stupid.

The key factor in appealing to young Americans, however, is recognizing the need for new approaches to old economic debates.

We're not talking about the economy of refinancing mortgages, mid-career transitions and Medicare. Instead, young adults in America are battling for a select few jobs at the high and low ends of the paycheck continuum; indeed, the job market consists of ever-dwindling opportunities for middle-income, entry-level positions. With unemployment rates for young adults two to three times higher than for older workers, this emerging work force is quite obviously not winning the good fight.

Young potential voters understand the struggles to afford basics such as housing and food. The ludicrously high costs of a postsecondary education, whether vocational or college level, subsequent loan repayments and exorbitant health care premiums add to a stark financial reality that results in struggles to pay bills, save for the future and be assured of a life that is economically better than their parents'.

To be sure, any economic and job-creation strategy is inherently complex to formulate and still more complex to communicate to voters. We propose three easy steps to use economic issues as a means of invigorating younger voters:

Make a commitment to fiscal responsibility.

Propose a transparent national budget.

Support proven and effective community development initiatives.

The first step requires addressing the horrific dollar reality that ultimately hits young adults harder than older adults. Young adults are incredulous when learning that national deficits are in the trillions and that a lack of budgetary responsibility will hurt them, their children and their grandchildren for decades to come. With student loans and credit cards of their own, many young voters know the dangers of operating in deficits.

Young people know there's a problem hiding in the long grass. But convincing them that a candidate has a feasible plan is a problem all its own. Although a verbal commitment to fiscal responsibility is considered sufficient by many voters, candidates would be wise to get specific with young voters. They should pledge that the budget will be balanced over the long term, still leaving enough flexibility to withstand economic and social shocks, but closing the door on unnecessary pork or tax cuts.

They should also pledge to borrow only for proven initiatives that have a measurable long-term return on investment -- for example, in infrastructure or education, which result in increased human capital and economic development.

As for the budget, the candidates could learn from British Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration. He ended Parliament's yearly spending bazaar and instead set out three-year spending plans. This reform -- in which resources have to match results -- has allowed Mr. Blair's government to spend record amounts on health and education with the approval of a public that feels informed about the choices being made on its behalf.

The final step of the youth vote formula focuses on the funding of community-based projects. While volunteerism among young adults has skyrocketed, political participation has slumped. Bridging that gap between public policy and public service would be a prime motivator for young people previously dissuaded by policy approaches that appear to be stuck in government bureaucracies.

There are no easy ways to engage and secure the young adult vote, regardless of the various ham-handed and somewhat embarrassing ploys used by candidates. It will take real commitment and real respect for young voters' intelligence, issues and needs. But after 2000, when a few hundred votes made the difference, surely every vote is worth fighting for.

Paul Andrew is one of 18to35's Innovators and a senior consultant at a Boston firm. Jonathan Zaff is the president and co-founder of 18to35.

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