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Buried under debt, 3 millennials describe life in Idaho for their generation

Derek Fedde declined a cup of coffee on a recent Tuesday morning. He was heading off to sell his plasma, and day-of caffeine is frowned upon.

The Nampa 29-year-old has been selling his plasma twice a week for nearly two years. At first he used the money—$20 for the first donation in a week, $50 for the second—for fun, extras. Now, it goes to pay off the debt that piled up when his son went to speech therapy.

Arthur has apraxia, which means the 5-year-old knows what he wants to say but usually cannot be understood. His parents can no longer afford to send him to a private therapist. The condition persists. So does the therapy debt. But it is dwarfed by his parents’ student loans, which hover at around $70,000 or so.

“We are barely keeping ahead, if at all,” said Fedde, who holds down two jobs, works seven days a week and can barely see a day when he and his wife will have their college debt paid off. “At our current rate, we’re paying around $100 a month. ... It’s going to take us quite some time, 20 years maybe.”

This is what it’s like to be an Idaho millennial, a generation that came of age in the 21st century. They have grown up in a world expanded by technology barely dreamed of a generation earlier. They can often find work; the economy is healthy and unemployment is low. But many face financial burdens far heavier than their parents shouldered.

Young adults in Idaho are less likely to have children, be married or own their own homes than their mothers and fathers a generation ago, and they are are more like to exhibit “failure to launch,” according to a McClatchy analysis of U.S. Census data.

In 2016, the Census Bureau figures, there were 242,000 people in Idaho between the age of 25 and 35. This is how their generation posts up against their parents’:

In 1980, about 4 percent of Idahoans between the ages of 25 and 35 lived in the same home as their parents, according to the McClatchy analysis. By 2016, that share had more than tripled, to 15 percent.

About 79 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds in the Gem State were married in 1980. By 2016, married millennials here were roughly 55 percent of the total.

Not surprisingly then, the percentage of young adults living with offspring fell, too. Roughly 70 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds in Idaho had children with whom they lived in 1980. By 2016, that figure had fallen to about 50 percent.

Given how home prices have soared, particularly in Idaho’s most populous regions, home ownership among millennials in the state is far lower their parents’ at the same age. Roughly 65 percent of 25- to 35-year-old Idaho householders owned their own homes in 1980. Fast forward to 2016, and that figure had fallen to about 47 percent.

At the same time, a college education has become more of a financial millstone than an affordable ticket to a prosperous adulthood, according to the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

Between 1980 and 2016, “tuition and fees for students have increased by more than five-fold, when adjusted for inflation,” the advocacy group said in a 2017 report titled “Trends in Tuition at Idaho’s Public Colleges and Universities.”

Over the past 30 years, the report said, “funding from the legislature has declined relative to the costs of providing education. The result has been steeply rising tuition and fees, a growing debt load for many students, and higher barriers to attending college for middle- and low-income Idahoans.”

Three Idaho millennials saddled with debt

For a better window into the financial struggles of Idaho’s millennials, the Statesman talked to Fedde; Danielle, a 25-year-old Boise high school teacher who declined to use her last name for privacy reasons; and Maxine Durand, a 26-year-old administrative assistant and state employee.

The three are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. None of them owns a home — or can even envision a day in which they might. All of them look wistfully at the lives of their parents or grandparents — women and men with their own worries — who have achievements that seem far beyond the reach of a young adult in 2018.

Fedde and his wife, Kayla, who is also 29, could be Exhibit A for the difficulties facing millennials in Idaho and across the country.

Monday through Friday, the gadget-loving gamer works full time as a school custodian. On weekends, he sells electronics accessories. Kayla works for SuperValu, which once owned Albertsons, giving tech support to workers installing new equipment.

At least she did until Oct. 3, when she was laid off. She’s back in school, working toward certification as a nursing assistant and hoping to be gainfully employed again by early 2019. The couple earned between $55,000 and $60,000 annually when they both worked. That will drop to around $25,000 to $27,000 a year once Kayla is on unemployment.

“It’s not that we’re going to be destitute,” Fedde said, after pushing up the sleeve of his gray fleece to show a thick scar from the needles used when giving plasma. “It is just going to be very, very rough for the next while until things get back to some sense of normalcy.

“As far as housing goes,” he continued, “we’ve looked. I’ve looked on Zillow. Even the houses around us that are somewhat affordable, they want 20 percent down, which is like $20,000. We barely have a few hundred in investments, if that. Buying a house is pretty much next to impossible right now.”

Fedde has a bachelor’s degree in history from Boise State University. He briefly considered teaching, he said, but the pay is low, and he’d need to take additional classes. His advice to young people considering college today: follow your passion, but make sure to get a “marketable” degree.

Fedde and his wife have few luxuries. They lived with his parents briefly before Arthur was born. They moved from Boise to Nampa for cheaper rent. They’ve taken two vacations together in six years of marriage; they’re still paying off a 2015 trip to DisneyWorld. They replaced Kayla’s failing five-year-old computer.

And they’re frustrated that money is more of a struggle for them than it was for America’s baby boomers in particular and also members of Generation X.

“From a job and income perspective, they had things very easy,” Fedde said before heading off to the plasma center. “A family could live off of minimum wage. Now, with minimum wage, a single individual would have a hard time living. Especially now in Idaho,” where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Teaching jobs mean ‘things are very very tight’

Danielle has that teaching job Fedde turned his back on because the pay is so low. She graduated from Washington State University, Vancouver, with a master’s degree and is in her second year of teaching high school English and journalism in the Treasure Valley.

“I really love it,” she said. “I really love working with my kids. They are the best. I really like connecting with my kids. I love the department, the other English teachers. We have really supportive co-workers.”

However, and it’s a big however, things are very, very tight.

She just applied for a holiday retail job. She works high school football games to make extra money. Another teacher at a recent game, she said, “told me that you can sell plasma and make extra money ... I hate needles. I don’t know if I would seriously consider it.”

Danielle said her father has worked at a paper mill for more than 30 years “and made really good money.” She describes the 56-year-old homeowner, as “pretty well off financially, more toward upper middle class.” Her mother, who has died, was a stay-at-home mom when Danielle was growing up. That kind of life is a luxury now, she said.

She figures she nets around $2,500 each month. Here is where that money goes: Rent is $855 each month. She pays an additional $50 a month for her cat. Her apartment complex requires each tenant to pay $100 a month for a mandatory internet package. Sewer and water are $10-$15. Electricity and gas are $20-$25.

Her student loans are $240. She has a car loan, car insurance and mandatory renter’s insurance. She buys supplies and equipment for her classroom and snacks for the students who come to school without. She has to have work clothes, because her school’s dress code only allows teachers to wear jeans on Fridays.

“At the end of the month, sometimes I’m short, so I use a credit card” to make it to the next pay check, she said. “It’s usually break even. ... (I have to decide) how much do I pay on my credit card this month. Do I pay the minimum and use it again?”

She is not married. Sometimes, she said, she thinks about combining finances and student loans with someone who has the same level of education she does and thinks “that’s quite a bit to tackle, that much debt between two people.”

Danielle makes a week’s worth of meals when she gets paid and puts them in the freezer for when the money runs out at the end of the month. And she frets about the unfairness of an American dream that has become too expensive.

“I have a friend who’s a nurse, and she has more student debt than I do,” Danielle said. “We talk about it. We’re both in nice jobs, real, adult, grown jobs. Our parents don’t understand why we can’t come visit, because we have all these other loans ... or why I can’t come at Thanksgiving, but I’ll come at Christmas.”

Living paycheck to paycheck

For a generation that often lives paycheck to paycheck, all of the careful planning that goes into scraping by is useless in the face of the unexpected.

Maxine Durand learned that painful lesson first-hand.

Durand is from the tiny town of Richfield, Idaho, population 479 in 2016, nestled between Twin Falls and Sun Valley. Her parents still live there. Her father drives a truck for UPS. Her mother stayed at home until a couple of years ago; today she works for Sun Valley Ballet Company and is a freelance writer. They own a home.

After earning three AA degrees from the College of Southern Idaho, Durand went on to get a bachelor’s from the University of Idaho. All told, she has about $40,000 in student debt. She works in Boise but can’t afford to live there. She rents a two-bedroom apartment in Nampa with two roommates, a pizza delivery guy and an aspiring chef.

Durand’s take home pay is about $1,600 a month. Her share of the rent is $220. She pays between $75 and $120 each month in utilities, $300 goes to a car loan, between $225 and $325 covers medical care and prescriptions. Because she takes classes at BSU, she is not yet required to start paying down her student loans.

She considers herself lucky. She has a decent paying job with benefits such as medical insurance. Most of the time she manages to make ends meet. But she also has psoriasis, an autoimmune disease that, in her case, is genetic, and she struggles with depression.

“Things were going pretty good, and then I got hit with really serious depression,” she said. “I took some medical leave to deal with the depression. I thought I was going to take a couple of weeks off and chill and take some meds. But toward the end of September last year, I got hit with sudden, really serious joint pain and fevers and this mental fog.”

Not long after, she had the most serious psoriasis outbreak of her young life. Normally, she has two or three patches of the scaly, red rash. This time she had 24 or 25, on her face, under her eyes, “just everywhere,” she said. She was off work for four months.

“I watched my credit score go from 720 to 545,” Durand said. “I couldn’t pay bills. It’s really tough ... You sort of fall through the cracks of this bureaucratic nightmare. I think it’s a common problem that affects everyone.

“But, especially when you’re in this generation that’s already really struggling ... any little thing like that — like an injury or a family crisis, a major unexpected expense — you’re just kind of toast,” she said.

In her generation, Durand said, “we’re all just basically living paycheck to paycheck. And we’re usually one or two paychecks away from being homeless.”