Friday, July 29, 2005

Loving the Freaks

Attended a fascinating talk today by the authors of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (who I did a little work for, back in 2002, and who was incredibly kind and set me up with an internship at the Voice.) Steven Levitt, if you haven't read the runaway bestseller or one of the many, many reviews or their column in the NYT Magazine, is an economist & applies rigorous data analysis to quirky, emotionally revealing situations. For example: one paper which he said today was one of his favorites looked at the economics of a crack gang and found that street-level dealers make about the same amount of $ as fast-food workers, which explains why they live with their mothers (a point well illustrated on The Wire.)

I was really interested in something Dubner said (which makes it kinda relevant for this blog):
He hopes the book's success will make attractive to journalists the idea of actually crafting fact-based stories. Don't just follow the 3-examples-makes-a-trend rule; in big dull government reports like this one lie thousands of untold stories.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Young Adults are Petty Thieves...

says the New York Times Styles section. They take peanut butter, disposable razors, and even underwear from their parents' houses!
The interesting thing about this annoying, youth-smearing story is that it's exactly like the story they ran last week about people stealing from posh restaurants and hotels. Both of them are about stupid, spoiled, privileged yuppies with no morals. Yet the kids story drags in the fine research of Frank F. Furstenburg and the Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood to somehow prove that the rotten behavior of the junior yuppies is a universal, generational thing. Even though Furstenburg is careful to point out in his book, which I cite in my book, that the phenomenon of "emerging adulthood" is caused by economic factors, not psychological ones.

Book Update

All this week, I've been contacting the people quoted in my book to verify facts and get formal permission. It's just one step in a process that will apparently result in galleys by September (a galley is basically a bound manuscript that goes out to reviewers and blurb-ers, even though it hasn't been copy edited or finished with notes or anything). Every step closer to publication--a cover design, another revision--fills me with trepidation. And excitement.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Trust Fund Backlash

Most of the people who have written in about the "Rich Little Poor Kids" story seem to agree with this person, but he put it especially well:

I'd like to know the motivation behind your story. Granted everyone needs to be treated with respect and not be judged by their bank account. It seems that you are attempting to garnish these men and women with sympathy so that we can say that they are "just like us".

Ironically enough, the feelings of low self esteem, feeling dependant and feeling different from peers are synonymous with those who are on the bottom end of the economic scale. As a society we tell them to fight against their circumstances and that with hard luck they can become successful. Meanwhile you article seems to suggest that a "trustafarian" should be held with the same regard as the young man who has to work two jobs so that his cabinet has enough top ramen for the week.

It it difficult for all of our to find our way. I understand that those who have privilege have increased expectations and that it is hard for others to relate to their issues. I guess I wish I could search for my niche and know that my rent is paid for regardless of my discovery.


I'd just like to respond that I wasn't suggesting any kind of equivalency of virtue or level playing field between people who have to struggle and those who have it easier. But just as this guy points out, the emotions in both situations are often the same.

Dirt Poor Rock Stars

This guy Camper English, a nightlife writer from San Francisco, wrote an awesome new book called Party Like A Rock Star--Even if You're Poor as Dirt about saving $ on all the fun stuff: clubs, rock shows, free drinks, thrift stores, workouts, etc etc. A nice reminder that being part of Gen Debt isn't all about packing a PB&J sandwich for lunch. On his site he keeps a blog with new tips all the time.

Rich Little Poor Kids

My newest Generation Debt story has been up for three days and I've already gotten three emails about it, which is pretty good. The topic, kids with trust funds, was originally suggested by my editor. It's an interesting twist on the usual Gen Debt column. The wealthiest young people obviously don't share the same material problems that are common to most of us, yet they have similar emotional problems of feeling dependent and sometimes directionless.

What really surprised me about this story was how hard it was to find subjects. People didn't want to talk to me, and when they did, they were often cagy--and I was really surprised to find myself being overly sensitive, even deferential, to them! They were far more concerned with their anonymity than the welfare moms or anyone else I've interviewed. Money and class have a potency in our society that you can't really feel until you address them directly.
Let me know what you thought of the story.
Anya Kamenetz

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Dropout Crisis

Crucial op-ed from Bob Herbert in the NYT today about America's horrible high school graduation rate: Two out of three. (What it doesn't mention: this is a decline from the 1969 peak grad rate of 77%.) Herbert has really been out in front on these generational issues.

Why is the education of America's young people so important?

"It may sound like hyperbole," said Mr. Vander Ark [of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation], "but this is the economic development issue for our society, and it is the social justice issue of our times. It is the most important long-term issue for the civic health of the republic."

Less educated Americans, compared to the rest of the world = a poorer, more racially divided, less competitive, less safe, less democratic country.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Student Loan Loophole

Not only do student loans cost students billions to pay back, the federally subsidized program is designed in a sort of confusing, ramshackle way so that lenders can exploit it to reap billions in profit. On Monday, the Washington Post wrote an editorial about the closing of one stubborn loophole:

In principle, Congress shut down this scam -- which allows lenders to use an outdated law that guaranteed them 9.5 percent interest rates -- last year. But in practice, payments to student loan companies holding 9.5 percent interest loans have continued to expand, thanks to a process known as "recycling," which keeps the old interest rate in play. According to, which watches the numbers carefully, the costs to the taxpayer of the "recycled" loans in 2005 were slated to exceed that of 2004.

That cost is nearly $1 billion a year, Student Loan Watch says.

Student Loan Watch

This is an interesting blog with all kinds of info on student loan policy, specifically the way that commercial lenders are riding the "gravy train" of federal subsidies. The site is run by The Institute for College Access and Success, a year-old nonprofit that works on rising student debt, something called college access marketing, as well as more cost-efficient student loans. They've gotten good coverage, in The New York Times as well as the Washington Post (above).

Here's a link to a 2004 policy paper by the Institute's director titled "Straight Talk on Student Loans." It advocates cutting middlemen (the lenders) out of the student loan business, and lending all the money to students direct from the feds, as is already done with about 1/4 of loans through the direct lending program. I think this is a capital idea, although I also think energy should be directed to increasing aid, not just better loans.

Student wants Free Education

I received this email from Nathan Dickerson, at the University of Kentucky, who I met last week at the Campus Progress conference. Please comment if you have any interest in his ideas.
Hey Anya,

Thanks so much for not only taking the time to attend the Campus
Progress National Conference but also speaking with me (the student
from the University of Kentucky) and so many others. I wanted to tell
you how much I personally appreciate your column, Generation Debt. As
a student who received a full tuition scholarship plus other aid for
housing, etc, I can't complain too much about my debt situation. My
sensitivity to the issue of education inequity was fortunately only
developed when I watched a few of my friends, who usually lived a few
hours away in larger cities, pursue Ivies and equally expensive
pseudo-Ivies. It was quite disheartening to see the college hype in
high school reduced to a matter of money more than mind, a perplexing
end to what I had hoped would be a progressive, enlightening, and
meritocratic salvation from the working class conformist values of
Spottsville, Kentucky. Reading The Ambition Tax [by Brendan Koerner] was the first
thoughtful articulation of my frustrations--which luckily don't equal
tens of thousands of dollars--that made so much sense I began to
wonder why I had never encountered any ideas like it before in the
polarized struggle I felt between "real work" pragmatism and
educational utopianism. In short, keep up the good work.

Also, I'm very seriously considering creating a progressively minded
podcast that would kick off with an analysis of the issue of higher
education. My idea is not incredibly fleshed out, and I still would
need to overcome some technical hurdles as well as to create a
definite brand for a series of shows. However, if I put in some
effort, I may be able to pull it off and get a team of articulate and
proactive students to help me out. I've been thinking about the
crucial first podcast that could be used to energize and interest
students, and I'm wondering if I should push or at least analyze the
idea of federally-sponsored higher education at public institutions.

Would you have any thoughts on this? I realize it is unrealistic in
the present budgets, but the idea of free education could be used to
bargain at least a better deal than students receive now.
Additionally, the economic shift toward a creative class could justify
producing a more highly educated work force.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Intergenerational Redistribution

Interesting article in the New York Times today looks at generational equity from a new angle. It seems that grandparents, increasingly well-off, are more and more often bankrolling things like college and private school tuition for their grandchildren, whose own parents don't have the resources. The following paragraph could have come straight from my book:

This generation of 20- and 30-somethings are taking longer to finish their education and reach self-sufficiency. "Our culture has changed so that education is priced so high, and lasts so long, that this phenomenon of economic dependency lasts much longer than it used to," said Professor Bengtson, himself a grandfather who goes to Santa Barbara each week to spend a day or two with his year-old granddaughter, Zoe Paloma Lozano.

My own maternal grandparents paid for my Yale education, lock, stock and barrel; the alternative would probably have included loans. Just like the families in the article, I feel that combination of gratitude and sometimes uncomfortable dependence. Families have always done their part to cushion their members from economic hardships--in previous generations, the help usually flowed from children to parents. But the result is rarely emotionally simple.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Taking the Progressive Debate to Campus

I was privileged today to be a panelist for the Center For American Progress's first annual Campus Progress national student conference. Everyone there, over 500 students, was really jazzed that there finally seems to be a response to the need for grassroots progressive (the new word for "liberal") leadership development, in thinktanks and on campuses, to counter the incredibly successful effort on the right that has been kicking our ass for 30+ years.

It was a great experience personally seeing President Clinton and Thomas Frank speak. It was great to meet my fellow panelists, Benoit Denizet-Lewis of the New York Times Magazine and Sarah Wildman of The American Prospect and many other publications, who are showing that you can make a living writing about gay rights, Muslim-Jewish relations and other important stuff. But most of all it was great talking to the students. A guy came up to me from the University of Kentucky and said he's been reading my series and he wants to use higher education financing as a progressive wedge issue on his conservative campus, to motivate students. I think that's some awesome thinking.

PS. Shout out to my New Journal alumni (the best literary nonfiction magazine about Yale and New Haven, bar none)!