Our Piece of the Pie

by Dan Pollock | 11/17/99 6:00am

At last, negotiations over next year's federal budget are winding down, and Congressmen everywhere are eagerly preparing to get home in time for Thanksgiving. It is the time of year when they can relax, sit-back and enjoy a good home-cooked turkey and some old-fashioned pumpkin pie. They can finally catch their breath, now that they have successfully cut up the federal budget into little pieces in order to satisfy the voracious appetites of the interest groups. Like rude guests trying to grab at food, the lobbyists have been unusually successful in gobbling up the pork barrel spending dollars hastily included in the budget during these last few rough and tumble negotiating days. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Veterans-HUD appropriation measure was crammed with 444 specially earmarked items worth about $250 million. The defense bill included around $6 billion of pork. The surprising truth is that corporate lobbyist firms do not request many of these pork-barrel projects. Instead the money is quietly appropriated to placate the smaller groups, representing the constituents of a particularly powerful Congressman.

Regardless of a Congressman's influence, the one group of constituents guaranteed to not see a dime of pork barrel money is college students. A recent USA Today article said that people 18-to-24 make up nearly 13 percent of the voting-age population but fewer than 8 percent of voters. To be fair, voting is more difficult for college students who have to go through the arduous process of registering, requesting an absentee ballot, and then trying to make an educated decision in the middle of midterms, club meetings and sports.

But not voting can have some pretty serious consequences. Even though most of us have little or no income, we are being hit with huge college loans, high payroll taxes, and widely accepted age discrimination that would bring numerous lawsuits if directed towards any other group.

No one is required to go to college, (or to an Ivy League school that charges $30,000 a year.) But the job market of the 21st century is not going to be kind to people without a college education. And even for people that don't go to schools with a-la-carte dining halls, college can be a difficult financial load to bear. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that out of $64 billion in financial aid given out in 1998, 58 percent was in the form of loans, up from 40 percent in 1981. This means that more members of our generation are going to be saddled with college debts than any other generation before us.

Around the same time that we will be paying-off these debts, the baby-boom generation is going to retire and begin draining many of the government programs that our families may need, such as defense, education, and health care. If money isn't cut from those programs, the baby-boom generation may demand that Social Security and Medicare be paid for through massive increases in our taxes.

In the short term, many of us feel the effects of being an irrelevant voting block on a daily basis. There is a constant lack of respect by other age groups for the rights of people aged 18-24. We face policies and laws that discriminate against us whenever we pay car-insurance, try to buy liquor or go to a club, try to rent an apartment or buy a house, apply for a credit card, and even we try to rent a car. Even worse, is the conscious attitude by police officers, store clerks, college administrators and politicians to write-off our age group as being irresponsible, untrustworthy and immature. Often this attitude translates into flagrant violations of our civil rights.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that just by voting, we will some how reverse all of the attitudes, misconceptions and stereotypes about 18-24 year olds. We will however gain a greater presence on the political battlefield, and with presence comes importance. If we can demonstrate that we are responsible enough to take an active role in our democracy, perhaps our opinions will take on a little bit more weight among the people in power.

If, on the other hand, we continue turning out to vote at present levels, there is no reason to suspect that the government, or anyone else, will take us seriously. Don't take my word for it, just look at the way the government currently spends our money. Social Security and Medicare already consume 37 percent of the total federal budget, more than double the money spent on the Pentagon. And that 37 percent will almost certainly go up as the retiree population increases in size. Why are Social Security and Medicare never cut during budget negotiations? The answer is voter turnout. Even though they only represented 21.5 percent of the voting-age population, seniors over age 60 cast 27 percent of the votes in the 1996 presidential election. Seniors will not be any less of a presence in the 2000 election.

Voting often seems like a waste of time because it is almost impossible to see rapid results. But if our generation continues to be absent at the polls, we face the risk of becoming irrelevant, both in a democratic sense, and a monetary one. The only way for our generation to obtain the things we want is to make our presence felt. The primaries are only a few months away and the general election is less than a year away. When you're home this Thanksgiving, take half an hour away from the football games and the cranberry sauce, and register to vote. It's the only way we will ever get any respect, and certainly the only way to a get a piece of the money pie at a very crowded table.