In some ways, Idaho millennials doing worse than previous generations

adutton@idahostatesman.comJuly 6, 2014 

  • ABOUT AUDREY DUTTON

    Audrey, a borderline millennial, covers the business of health care and produces data-driven stories for the Statesman.

Ashley Hammond is in her mid-20s. She graduated from Boise State University two years ago. Unlike a lot of people her age, she doesn't have student loan debt.

Hammond is a social worker for the state, a job she considers herself "very fortunate" to have. She has a toddler with her partner of eight years, Zac Nickel. They're expecting a baby in November. They are buying a house together and would be married, if not for a financial puzzle that didn't exist when previous generations were her age.

Angie Baker, a Boise human resources professional who also works for the state, is in a similar position when it comes to financial stress. She's 32 and earned a biology degree from the College of Idaho. She grew up with a stay-at-home mom, and she remembers "being comfortable," even though her family didn't have a lot of money. She wasn't prepared for what happened when she gave birth to her son, Cole.

"The cost of raising a child kind of blindsided us," she said. "We (will) spend more for preschool than a mortgage payment, and I think that is a big difference between our generation and our parents' generation."

A Statesman analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data collected from Idahoans ages 18 to 33 during four decades shows that the life of a millennial in Idaho is distinctly different from Generation X, baby boomers and those who came of age around World War II and the Korean War.

The differences are stark between Idahoans who are now at the age when people start families and careers, and those who were at that age 40 years ago.

Young Idaho adults are twice as likely to be in poverty and unemployed as were baby boomers. They're also twice as likely to have completed four years of college. They're 25 percent more likely to live with parents or grandparents - because they either never left or they're "boomerang" kids - and almost half as likely to be married.

One statistic that hasn't changed much over the decades is the rate of young Idahoans who live in rentals.

About 100 people in the millennial generation recently told the Statesman about their personal finances, their families and their work prospects. Most said they believe their generation to be worse off than their parents' and grandparents' generations when it comes to economic opportunity. They feel thwarted by bad luck, joining the workforce during an economic downturn, with plentiful student loans and fewer job openings.

But some millennials have a different perspective. They believe their peers have unrealistic expectations, assuming they'll nab a dream job after college, instead of taking whatever's open and working up the ladder.

CAUSE AND EFFECT

Idaho's 20-to-35-year-olds are "facing some new problems, like the debt," said Peter Crabb, an economist who teaches at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. "Everybody pretty much agrees on that data point - they're carrying more student debt. At the same time, they have a vast number of greater choices."

Crabb said the fact that millennials have student debt indicates they've had more access to college.

Asked whether student debt might be an outgrowth of tuition and fee increases making it harder to work one's way through school, he said more students now have jobs than before.

"My students pay for college with the debt, but they work to have the spending money," he said.

Crabb said that if anything is getting in the way of millennials' success, it's government growth, pushing out private business by increasing debt and taxes, he said.

Crabb's 19-year-old son just got a summer job and was trying to figure out where 7 percent of his paycheck went. Crabb looked at his father-in-law.

"I said, 'Well, you're giving it to him,' " for Social Security and Medicare, Crabb said. (He said his father-in-law responded with a good-natured, "Thank you!")

Government fiscal policy might indeed be a hindrance, but for different reasons, according to the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

Young Idahoans are leaving the state, said Michael Ferguson, the center's newly retired former director, and Lauren Necochea, his successor. Young Idahoans also are not starting families and putting down roots.

"No one knows exactly why millennials are leaving, but there's a strong argument to be made that it's difficult for them to find good jobs with good wages in Idaho," Necochea said.

Idaho has decreased its public spending in the past decade, while its personal income has fallen. Necochea said local school districts are often the largest public employers in Idaho counties, and she hears about teachers leaving for higher-paying jobs in neighboring states.

Ferguson, a former state economist, said Idaho's focus on lowering taxes attracts employers who don't want to pay much.

It's like a bank where he once worked, he said: Bank executives wanted to cull low-deposit customers, such as students, by making policy changes. "And it worked," he said. "Well, turned out they didn't get them back when they graduated school, had families, and they remembered their experience and went to other banks. ... There can be longer-term consequences, and given that we're not providing opportunities to younger people, we could be undermining (the future)."

SCRIMPING WITHOUT THE SAVING

Hammond, the social worker, grew up in a single-parent family. Her father paid child support, which helped, she said.

"For me, when I was growing up, even with (my mother) being a single parent, we went to the movies, we went out to eat, she got me new clothes when I outgrew them," Hammond said.

That's "just absolutely not a possibility" now that she's an adult with her own family, she said.

About 33 cents of each dollar her family makes goes to a mortgage. Another 33 cents goes to child care. The rest is food, transportation, utilities and incidentals. The family food budget in January, after the new baby starts day care, will be $120 per month - or $1 each per day - so they're growing food for canning and freezing this year. The family does not qualify for food stamps or subsidized child care.

"We've had to go to food banks in the past several months. We don't get any of our clothing new," Hammond said.

COST OF CHILD CARE

Baker, the human resources professional, has a son in day care now. As he approaches age 3, she's scoping out preschools, hoping to get him ready for public school.

The monthly costs for every preschool near her Southeast Boise home "floored us," she said. "It's upwards of $800 to $900."

That cost is not only a factor in their decision to have a second child - or wait until Cole is in elementary school - but will affect their spending on other things, especially since the family has student loans to pay off, she said.

"We just got rid of our cable because we couldn't afford that anymore," she said. "By now, we don't take vacations, we don't buy clothes. ... We used to work three jobs, and the goal was to buy a house, and we reached that goal."

The next goal was to have a child, she said. With Cole growing up, working three jobs isn't an option.

'SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT'

Dan Neifert is at the very earliest tip of the millennial generation. He's 34 and got through college without taking out loans because his parents helped pay for it. He works in respiratory therapy at a local hospital and teaches future therapists as an adjunct professor at Boise State University.

Unlike many of his peers, he is married, and he has two children. He worked summer jobs as a kid and is disappointed by the "sense of entitlement" he sees in his generation and the one just after it.

Neifert and his wife both work. He says he'd never have gotten where is now - gainfully employed, with a family and a house - without financial help from his parents during college. These days, his grandparents provide child care once a week while he and his wife are at work. But he thinks younger Idahoans are taking that reliance to an extreme.

"I see a lot of younger kids in the respiratory program. The work ethic's not there," he said. "Young adults are kind of waiting for a handout, living off their parents, and don't feel like they have to work - laziness, I guess. ... I just think kids seem to be getting more and more spoiled as time goes on. I was definitely in the upper-middle tier of that, but it seems like now it's just getting worse and worse and worse. A lot of these kids get what they want."

Alissa Gamble thinks the same thing.

Gamble is 34 and married, with two children. She has "a reversed role family" - she works as a real estate agent, her husband works on raising the kids. How they got there is simple: Her career paid more. With child care so expensive, they'd break even if he quit his job as a beer salesman and she made just $800 more per year.

The relative acceptance of stay-at-home dads arose during Gamble's generation as more women took leadership positions, and that's one of many reasons it's better to be a young adult in Idaho now, she said.

Gamble's husband took paternity leave while she went back to work.

"A lot of younger people just want things handed to them," she said. "It's not easy. But it wasn't easy 20, 30 or 50 years ago."

She said technology has opened doors that didn't exist before.

"It's just a lot easier to get whatever you're selling to a larger group of people. ... To me, that just offers a lot more advantages," she said. "The opportunities are bountiful."

'YOU'RE TREADING WATER'

Hammond tries not to dwell on it, but she knows her family's budget is on shaky ground.

Nickel just started a job - his college engineering program is a full-time commitment - and Hammond hopes that will delay the "eventuality" of student loans as he works toward one of the lauded STEM degrees.

But what happens if his increasingly cranky 1998 Ford Contour breaks down?

What about when Baby No. 2 arrives, and child care costs double?

What about Hammond's desire to get a master's degree in social work? (Without it, she worries career advancement is next to impossible.)

And what happens when Nickel turns 26 this fall?

That question is partly why they haven't married yet.

As a student, Nickel is required to have health insurance. He's covered now under his parents' insurance, but the Affordable Care Act guarantee for young adults to stay on a parent's plan - even if they're married and living on their own - expires when he turns 26.

"I can't put him on my plan at work," Hammond said. "That would be the cheapest possibility, but then we would have to get married."

The nuptials aren't the issue, she explained. It's the fact that if he gets married, he will lose the Pell Grant that helps pay for his education.

So, to the health insurance exchange he will go.

Hammond hopes the premiums aren't too high, since 66 percent of their income is spoken for, and by now they've trimmed the fat from the other 34 percent. Their entertainment budget is $8 a month for a Netflix subscription, she said.

"We don't get a morning latte, we don't get our nails done, we don't go out for dinner," she said.

Like many other Idahoans her age, she said she feels duped into a dream that doesn't exist anymore. Young adults in Idaho have more student debt, while wages are among the lowest in the country.

"That's the American dream. You go to college and get a job and benefits, and you buy a house. ... You're secure," she said. "(The reality is) not the American dream. You're treading water. You're not getting out of the ocean, or whatever - you're trying to find land."

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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