Young America's Rallying Cry: `Dis The Deficit'

Shane F. Harris is disappointed. It's not just that the 24-year-old Howard University graduate is working in a watch store while looking for the banking job he really wants. The budget deficit bugs Harris--a lot. Because Clinton's plan will still add $1 trillion to the deficit over the next four years, he laments: "It's not helping our generation at all."

Harris and other twentysomethings are unimpressed by deficit-cutting efforts that only nip at Social Security and other expensive benefit programs for the elderly. Overshadowed by the politically powerful senior citizens and baby boomers, the baby busters are struggling to make their voices heard. And they see the deficit as the most potent symbol of generational neglect.

THE PLEDGE. As Congress put the final touches on the 1994 budget on July 14, a delegation of 500 busters dumped 4,000 pennies--symbolizing the $4 trillion national debt--on the Capitol steps in a "Dis the Deficit" protest. But that was small change compared with the 1994 plans of Lead or Leave, the year-old grass-roots lobby that pressures politicians to pledge to cut the deficit in half in four years or quit. Next up: a national education campaign, chaired by Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). It will feature university teach-ins; workbooks for high school math, history, and civics students; and interactive software to let students fashion their own budgets.

No youth movement would be complete without a concert: Indeed, Hal Uplinger, whose Live Aid production raised money for African famine relief, is organizing a February "Rock the Deficit" benefit for the national debt. Then, in April, the group plans a Washington "Youth to Power" rally and conference to identify the issues bugging Generation X: the deficit, a failing educational system, polluted air and water, and crime. Says Lead or Leave's Jon Cowan, 30: "The deficit is the radicalizing edge issue, but it's only part of the web of issues destroying the future of our generation." Cowan and fellow Lead or Leave co-founder Rob Nelson also helped write the Third Millennium Declaration. This manifesto, which covers everything from government waste to deadbeat dads, has already been circulated on Capitol Hill and will be distributed on college campuses this fall.

Of course, none of this matters unless it translates into clout at the polls, and that's where the busters have fallen short. Although participation by young voters rose in 1992, they still have the lowest turnout of any age group (chart). Lead or Leave hopes to reverse this by targeting a half-dozen 1994 House campaigns to demonstrate youth power through get-out-the-vote efforts. Analysts are skeptical. "Young voters rarely have the cohesion or the interest to become a political force," says William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute.

At best, the relatively small Generation X will have a tough time displacing the baby boomers' emerging dominance in politics and popular culture. The busters, says Schneider, "could start a movement, but it's going to look very much like Youth for Perot. The deficit is already Perot's symbol of corruption and incompetence in government economic policy."

Furthermore, a dose of economic growth could ease Generation X's alienation. Once corporations resume hiring, the busters may forget the deficit and start thinking like the boomers. If not, busters may look for salvation in politics. The key is "building attitudinal bridges across generational lines," notes Martha Farnsworth Riche of the Population Reference Bureau, a demographic think tank. "They'll have to have allies." And to make a difference, such groups as Lead or Leave will have to show that they can do as well at politics as in organizing benefit concerts and rallies.