This piece was originally published in Common Dreams.
"America is at its best when we invest in the backbone of our Nation: the hardworking people in every community who make our Nation run," states President Biden's budget request. And yet the budget, released at the end of March, includes $813 billion dollars on weapons and war. While the country stares down a pandemic, massive educational debt, a stumbling economy, and urgently needed environmental reform, prioritizing fear-based military spending only speaks to the values of special interest groups—not everyday Americans, and especially not young people.
Without investing in student loan forgiveness, climate change, and Social Security, it is hard to imagine a world in which Gen Zers like me will prosper.
College debt is debilitating
Student loan borrowing severely limits my generation, leaving us unable to buy our first homes and delaying major life decisions while we try to pay down our debt. While many Baby Boomers and Generation Xers could graduate debt-free by working summer jobs, students at public four-year universities today have seen a 213% increase in tuition expenses. Education costs have grown eight times faster than wages, and student loans are now the largest portion of non-housing debt in the U.S. Partially or entirely forgiving student loan debt would have massive impacts on the daily lives of an entire generation, with resulting economic and societal benefits.
President Biden promised to address student loans on the campaign trail, but he has yet to make good on his promise. Forgiving student debt has been branded as financially impossible, but cutting the Pentagon budget by just 10% for six years— to its 2016 spending level—could provide almost 12 million college students with 4 year scholarships, or forgive student loans for all borrowers making $50,000 or less. We have the money to address the economic crisis Gen Z is facing, it's just being used to fund faulty weapons programs and endless war.
Younger generations will suffer the most from climate change
If we hope to protect future generations from natural disasters, we need to reexamine how we think of security and prioritize worldwide threats such as the climate crisis. Climate change is our most urgent security threat, and we cannot leave it to young people that will live to answer for the inaction of previous generations.
Redirecting military funds toward the environmental crisis is more than appropriate given that the United States Department of Defense (DOD) is the world's largest oil consumer, meaning that it is one of the world's top greenhouse gas emitters. The DOD generates more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Funding a military structure that contributes heavily to pollution with only token efforts at green energy is beyond irresponsible.
Cutting the Pentagon budget by 10% could fund almost 430,000 clean energy jobs or provide 187 million households with wind power for the year. Heading into summer, we are already experiencing record breaking heatwaves, with 61% of the country experiencing a drought as of May 10, 2022. Preventing and mitigating climate change has never been more urgent. It is time to use the federal budget to protect our future and mitigate climate change rather than exacerbating it.
Social Security will run dry before Gen Z has a chance to use it
Young people, despite the hardship they face finding jobs in a struggling economy, make up a growing portion of the workforce and pay into government programs like social security. Unless major institutional reform occurs, the Social Security Trust Fund is estimated to be exhausted by 2037. In 2037, the oldest of Gen Z will only be 42 and still decades from being eligible to withdraw from a program they have helped fund.
The systematic changes required to fund Social Security are, admittedly, complex. Many politicians have introduced ideas that could extend the life of Social Security, but no substantial changes have been made to the system since 1983, when the retirement age was raised from 65 to 67. Improving this program cannot be delayed any longer. This is an increasingly urgent problem for young people that are paying into a system that might not be around to keep its promises.
Congress needs to prioritize our future
President Biden's budget does reflect increased investment in education and environmental needs compared to last year. However, these steps are not enough to undo decades of inaction and an ever-increasing military budget. Gen Z is facing many challenges, and there is no single solution that can address them all. But there is one clear starting point: shifting our priorities away from massive military spending. The change we desperately need requires facing the deep pockets of the defense industry and its special interests. More than ever, we need politicians that are willing to stand up to the war machine and prioritize the needs of their youngest constituents.
If we cannot address these issues until Gen Z makes up the majority of officeholders, it will be too late. Redefining our national budget priorities is not only possible, it is an imperative step towards the larger reform needed to protect the future of Gen Z and the world.