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3.3 out of 5 stars
Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I'm a working student. I can tell you that outreach to underrepresented students is not behind the double digit percentage increases in tuition. Try static supply and increasing demand. Try corruption.

Draut's thesis is simple: making a living and becoming an "adult" according to certain criteria (education, house, baby) is drastically more expensive now than it was several decades ago. Since the 70s, American productivity has skyrocketed and wages have flatlined or regressed. Let's face it, an undergraduate degree is the modern day equivalent of what the high school diploma used to be.

Instead of questioning why this might be the case (uh, health insurance anyone?), some folks want to put the blame squarely on the (not just young) people who get hit with these costs--"the me generation," "entitlement," and the mother of all conservative memes, "personal responsibility." Hey, individual choice and systemic change AREN'T the same thing.

Draut doesn't argue that people should spend beyond their means, or not try to pinch pennies to survive. Instead, she looks at the damage caused by "free market fundamentalism": disintegrating social cohesion, rigidifying class mobility, a health care catastrophe, the casualization of the workforce ("contingent workers make up 33% of the workforce") etc. "Today," she writes writes, "In the midst of historic income inequality, our nation's primary engine of social mobility, education, is broken."

"Back in 1972, the typical male high school graduate earned just $42,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars," she writes elsewhere, "Three decades later, male high school graduates in this age group [25-34] are earning just over $29,000." Coupled with astronomical housing prices, it seems strange to keep arguing that young people should just tighten their spending without addressing some of the larger social shifts taking place--monopolies, corruption, brutally regressive taxes, just to name a few.

Although I have to admit that the portraits of mostly young (white) professionals had me peeved--jetting off to Europe or having "that perfect wedding," yikes--there are plenty of folks who are barely making it and not because they buy too many CDs a month.

If a fairer charge could be leveled at Gen Xers, Draut's diagnosis of the political ignorance and apathy seems sadly accurate. Which is not to say that there aren't politically engaged young people, but the lingering Reaganite rhetoric and "streak of libertarianism" that hangs over this demographic leads her to ask, "It's time to ask ourselves, what good is an economy that generated $11 trillion where one third of us go without health insurance? Where three quarters of us can't afford to get a four-year degree? Where more than half of us lose a day's pay if we're sick? Where half of us must go back to work less than three months after having a baby?"

Good questions.
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38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Strapped deserves 3 stars for good writing and thorough research. Even if you disagree with the author's interpretation of statistics, you have enough information to draw your own conclusions.

As a former college professor (currently a career/business consultant) who attended undergraduate school in the 1960s, I agree with readers who question the responsibility of these students. As a professor, I found that students at non-elite universities tend to bring expectations that were foreign to their Boomer predecessors. For example, I know a college student whose parents sacrificed to send him to a private college. He returned home several times a year -- mostly flying to avoid a long drive or bus ride. My classmates would go home for Christmas - period.

In general, college students actually seem to receive less value for their education, unless they attend an elite Ivy-level university. One study found they watch television more than they study.

And many have adopted elements of lifestyles that used to be open only to the very wealthy. When I was in college, I don't remember getting manicures, let alone pedicures, waxing and highlights. Cable television? Our dorm had one television for several hundred young women. Cell phones? One phone on each floor, serving 20-30 students. Now my friends call their college-age children two or three times a day.

I'd also take a look at rising college costs. Professors no longer work for slave wages (unless they're part-timers - another story) and in fact business school and law professors do quite well. Administrators earn considerably more -- but that's another story.

Maintenance costs have risen for everyone. But when I was a student, we did not have "counselors" on each floor, free rooms, as my own college does now. Our medical service was limited to one grouchy doctor (at a reunion, one of my classmates who is now a physician called her a "piece of work"). A couple of psychiatrists were on call. Now students enjoy a full range of health services, including mental and reproductive health. Sports programs have expanded since Title IX. Of course it's a much better situation, but somebody has to pay.

When it comes to careers, Draut is absolutely right. Many jobs are temp-to-perm and whole industries have been outsourced or mechanized. Today's young people may be forced into debt from the beginning because their own parents were laid off at just the wrong time.

She's also right about credit cards. A few months ago my Amazon Chase card quietly changed its pay-by-phone policy, burying the only announcement in the middle of a group of ads, headed just "News." Under the new rules, phone and website payments become due up to 24 hours before the actual printed due date! They agreed to drop late charges after several people complained but insisted that interest rates would be higher. After the local Attorney General denied interest, I simply cancelled my card.

Credit is simply too easy to obtain and -- as Draut points out -- the companies are unregulated.

At the same time, lifestyle expectations are higher. We've come to feel entitled to travel and double strength caramel lattes.

My own recommendation: Get entrepreneurial. Instead of a summer job, start a business that brings in real money. Once graduated, begin a legal, ethical part-time business that allows you to itemize deductions while earning additional money. Don't wait for someone to help you out.

To get some context, I'd suggest reading Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan, The Disposable American by Louis Uchitelle, and JobShift by William Bridges.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2008
Format: Paperback
As a non-socialist European I have rejected the idea of a "Nanny State", I think that all able bodied people have an individual responsibility to oneself, one's family and society, to maintain independence for the betterment of the whole. That said I have always believed wholeheartedly that the government should secure for its citizens two things: Education and Health, the rest is up to the individual. As I see it, the idea of a socialized system in America is completely unviable, it is simply not in the psyche of America to accept it. BUT the government does have a responsibility to supply its citizens with affordable health care and education. This is clearly not happening.
It is far more expensive to pursue education in the US than it is in the UK because there are no private schools in the UK and the government caps tuition heavily to prevent an economic elite. Although there are problems related to class and race distinction, a student would not be rejected because of an inability to pay; the colleges are simply not permitted to charge their students tens of thousands of dollars a year to gain a degree. We still end up in debt to some degree because of high living costs but the loan companies are again regulated by the government to prevent high interest rates, the payments are deferred until the student is in full time work and the payments are percentage proportional to earnings. i.e. you pay back what you can afford.

As a 30 year old Brit married to a 35 year old American and living in DC, we are the epitome of the GenX demographic. The big difference is that we took a very different path from the examples described in Draut's book. Gaining my degree in the UK I was stunned at the total lack of guidance that young adults are given in America. US students are coming in to higher education without the most basic of skills; the ability to live independently, self restraint and discipline. Although at college I was no angel by a long stretch, I would never have dreamt of going out more than once or twice a week, and that was to the student bar. I barely drank because it was too expensive, I wore the same clothes for three years, never took a trip anywhere, including home but three times a year, and you can forget about electronics; I didn't even have a television! Most importantly though, I didn't have a credit card. This was the same for most of my classmates, you simply didn't spend what you didn't have.
There is a two fold issue going on with the education system in America but I think that we have to accept that the hole that has been dug is far more complex than simply the lack of hand-outs from the government. Young people need to be taught the skills to understand how to behave like an adult before they even get to college, not after the fact.
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43 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As a 20-something who has worked hard for a good credit rating by carefully managing my spending and student loans, I found the author's indulgence of my peers a little annoying. I haven't gone to important weddings or jetted around the world unless I had the money saved up first. As someone strapped and in grad school in another state, I also don't fly anywhere to visit family unless they're paying my way.

I do, however, know many talented, hard-working, and sharp people in their 20s and 30s who just can't seem to get ahead. Especially because our career choices are often limited to 5 flavors of highly specialized underemployment at poor wages. So most just flit between careers trying to find a hot opportunity or the yoke of underemployment that fits best. The question i find most compelling is why have incomes shown negative real growth? Market forces, of course. Call me crazy, but it seems that a lot of good jobs are filled with aging boomers, whose tenure and salaries have grown large enough to support an adult kid - a kid likely working for some other highly paid boomer!

I hate to say "blame the old," since my parents are both retired pre-Boomers. But it sure is looking like a lot of the wealth and social spending in the US (including tax schmemes that redistribute wealth upwards by strategic cutting of taxes) is going to Generation Me. While they form the basis of the "ownership society," sending their cash abroad to find wealth in hot foriegn markets, the younger of us struggle with the consequences of a highly competitive and globalized economy where govt intervention works against us.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Tamara Draut's premise can be summed up this way: Every child is entitled to a college (bachelor's degree) and that education should be free. She defines a middle class lifestyle as one where a bachelor's degree is part of the package. Much of the book is devoted to anecdotal stories about young adults who were sold on the standard propaganda that getting a good job means getting a good education, but she never questions the wisdom of this view. She seems to think that all of our problems would be solved if we could make higher education more accessible and affordable, while at the same time suggesting a bachelor's degree has become the new high school diploma. The irony, of course, is that if we did make college affordable it would further erode the value of a bachelor's degree.

The first error in her logic is to associate a middle class lifestyle with a college education. Blue-collar workers stand to fare much better economically than many college graduates. Electricians, plumbers, even locksmiths are in such strong demand they will never find themselves "downsized" or outsourced. These workers enjoy full protections from employer abuse under the Fair Labor Standards Act for overtime compensation, lunch breaks, etc., while so-called "exempt" white collar workers can be worked 24/7 with no overtime or breaks.

Draut fails to address other obvious issues like whether or not employers really value expensive bachelor's degrees. A Target store manager once told me that the applications from college graduates aren't even considered, "they go right in the trash." In other words, a college degree can make you less employable.
The US is creating far more low skill, low wage jobs than high skill, high wage.

It's clear that today's employers want skilled, cost-effective labor. That's why they send skilled jobs offshore to countries like India. But Draut fails to suggest that maybe we should provide higher value vocational training at the high school level so that young adults can go immediately to work in better paying jobs while avoiding the need for an expensive college education. Conversely, it would have been interesting to explore why so many employers desire college graduates for what are essentially white collar sales jobs -- work that any bright 8th grader could do.

It would have been a far more interesting read if Draut had advocated something more germane to the realities of today's job market: an 8th grade diploma. One of the book's common themes is the cost of delayed entry into the job market (and the consequential shortening of the earning years). If young people could start working full time at an earlier age, they would be much better off financially throughout their life. If they started working at, say, 14, they could save a nice down payment for a home by 18 and have their mortgage paid off by age 48. Similarly, they could start saving for retirement at an earlier age and have a much greater accumulation of wealth by age 65. But with the ever-extending age of entry into the adult workforce, while accumulating enormous debt thorough years of education, young people sacrifice their economic security.

Draut advocates more funding for education while ignoring the more foundational need for government to provide incentives for high wage, high skill job creation while discouraging job growth in the low wage, low skill area. In States like California, where local governments receive most of their revenue from sales and hotel bed taxes, economic development in these poorly paid, unskilled industries is the sole focus. A high tech firm that would pay good wages and benefits provides no taxes to city coffers. However, if legislators understood this, it would be a simple fix to phase-out sales taxes and phase-in higher income taxes, which would favor high-wage job creation. (High wage earners pay more taxes).

Draut says one in 3 young adults have no health insurance, but misses an opportunity to suggest an obvious solution: let everyone buy into the Medicare system. We already have a national healthcare system that works for seniors. Why not let the rest of us opt-in. It would have to be cheaper than private insurance and the premium-paying under-65s would help support the system financially for everyone. People could still buy private health insurance if they wish, but economics favor the Medicare system that removes much of the wasteful advertising and administrative costs in the private insurance system.

In short, "Strapped" is just a gossip sheet of variations on the same career and educational horror stories we hear from our friends. Her calls to action are vague and cliché ("Get out and vote.")
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25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Being 33, well-eduacted and ..well...broke, ..and..excuse me...thrifty and hard working...I read this book with great interest. The reviewer below does bellow a few reactions I might have predicted from this book but the fact is, the examples in this book are not full of irresponsible spenders. However, he does have a point that colleges themselves might take more responsiblity in keeping their costs down considering recent scandals in California (including a suicide) over kickbacks and absurd aministrative pay.

I found this book a page turner and could hardly put it down. I am not a big fan of "think tanks" and if there was only 1 think tank in the world that would be 100 too many for me. However, forgiving the author of this background I found this book highly compeling.

For me, the research in this book almost comes accross as a diagnostic analysis of the shrinking US middle class and an observation of a stratisfying society in process. Taxes, college or whatever, a stratisfied soceity is a recipe for problems no matter how you cut it.

The author repeats her theories as to why things have become so challenging for America's younger folks so many times it's as if she's trying to convince herself that she has found the culprits. I think she makes good headway and the best part of it is that Mrs. Draut gets the conversation going and this is crucial. I suggest the author read "One With Nineveh" by Paul and Ann Ehrlich to get a vast "pan-out" of global problems which probably are influencing the problems this author describes.

The saddest and scariest part of this book for me is the author's observations that today's Americans under 35 have no idea how politics work, don't read the newspaper or have any idea about current events. She describes a tuned-out and ignorant generation. She has her own theories as to why this is the case but I think it might be the result of decades of ad culture and the added toxic effects of peer pressure, i.e. "following politics and current events..isn't..well...COOL.". It means possibly disagreeing with your friends or confronting your own ignorance in matters. Two things that Gen Xers do not enjoy experiencing. The scariest thing about this for me is that eventually a generation will come to power to a country that has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the Earth seven times and it will be run by people that know a lot more about who Beck samples or what Puff Daddy is wearing than they do about, say, the Kyoto Treaty or what UNESCO does or why we should care about what's going on Indonesia for random example.

Tamara Draut begins a very very very important conversation here that the whole nation should be talking about whether one agrees with her take on the possible solutions or not. I hope this author is able to get more attention to the issues addressed here. It is only by fluke that I even became aware of this book. Maybe the way I came about becomming aware of "Strapped" is an example unto itself. I was listening to public radio at work and a short segment about the book came on. My fellow Gen-X co-workers physically threatened me to change the radio back to the Rap station. Seriously. I didn't and listened to the piece and have just read the book. I no longer work with them and am currently looking for a new job.
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41 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2008
Format: Paperback
While Ms. Draut's book has a great deal to recommend it, she failed to convince me of her main premise, i.e. that young college educated adults today are being unreasonably economically oppressed through little fault of their own. Her book is well researched and succinctly written. She was honest enough to admit to some faults of her own 30-something generation, mainly their political apathy and poor state of being informed of current issues. I will even agree that it isn't exactly easy for young adults nowadays to establish themselves economically. The mistake, however, is in concluding that it's inordinately more difficult than in other eras when all factors are averaged together.

Ms. Draut lacks an accurate sense of how people born before 1970 actually lived. Establishing oneself in adulthood has never been a walk through the park. The difference is that in the past nobody expected it to be easy. Most adults in the 1950's ate out in restaurants far less frequently. Men in those times were far more likely to be shade tree mechanics on weekends doing their own repairs to the aging family car. Parents back then didn't buy their children anywhere near as many toys. Not nearly as many teens had a car given to them when they turned 16, and more often if they did it was an old beater. Talk to people of that generation if you're not of that age yourself, and it soon becomes clear: in the past, people were more resourceful and lived more modestly. To her credit, in some passages Ms. Draut implies some concession to the fact that young people today live at a relatively high level of consumption. But she thinks it's inconsequential in the larger scheme. I beg to differ. Even modest expenditures add up faster than most people think.

I've often heard people argue that many young people do in fact appear to have a strong work ethic. As evidence, they will point out that there are teen-agers and college students working in fast food joints or stores in malls 30 to 35 hours a week while going to school full time. True enough, but it's rarely for survival. Those same young people are driving cars that are nicer relative to the era than many middle-aged adults owned in the 1950's, and they have to make the payments. Or they're working to pay higher than necessary rent because they refuse to live in a bargain apartment. They're less likely to accept functional hand-me-down clothes, or patch together an old but functioning jalopy as their first car. They want quality material stuff and they may be willing to work long hours at the store in the mall in order to have it. But they're far less likely to be thrifty and resourceful and repair something before replacing it. As I see it, you can find young people with a good work ethic, but you'll find very few who have much of a sacrifice ethic.

I think these same tendencies carry over into their adult lives. They simply have an inflated idea of what a minimally acceptable standard of living is.

In what may be the most glaring omission in this book, Ms. Draut made no mention of the high price people pay for weddings nowadays. The average price of a wedding today is somewhere in the tens of thousands, and it logically follows that many if not most of those would be for young adults. She omits any mention of this (which may not be accidental) yet only serves to call attention to it by mentioning traveling to weddings of friends as a burdensome but well justified expense! Bad rhetorical call there, Ms. Draut.

The book discusses some solutions in the last chapter, most of them with some merit in my opinion. I particularly liked her idea of an apprenticeship path for young people to enter skilled professions, as an alternative to the standard path of borrowing large sums of money for college.

Some of her solutions were good as far as they go, but mostly they involved public policy as the answer. That has its place, but I wish she had discussed the possibility of behavioral and cultural changes as well. The recent generations have had it drilled into their heads that the only path to a secure existence is to go the standard route of college followed by relocating to some major urban area since that's where the professional track jobs are. So they start in the world with high college debt, high housing cost, and the continual expense of frequent long distance travel to visit family. These young people enter adult life so top-heavy. To her credit, Ms. Draut does allude to this, but she fails to think outside the box of the college/professional path and ponder any radical alternatives.

What about the possibility of taking a lower-investment sort of career path? What about going to vocational school to become a carpenter or an electrician? It's not such a bad life. Young adults might be able to stay closer to their original family homes, where often housing is cheaper and family help is more available. Regarding child care, they might be able to do what young parents had always done for generations before: get their young nieces and nephews or retired parents or grandparent to occasionally watch the children. What about returning to a lifestyle in which not every activity is a commercial transaction with strangers?

So my final verdict is that there's some good information here, some good discussion of economic problems, and some good suggestions for solutions. But ultimately Ms. Draut failed to accurately identify the real problem, which is a lack of resourcefulness and lack of individual accountability. Consequently her vision for change was sadly limited.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover
When I ordered this book, I was as excited as I have ever been to finally read a story about what I and many of my friends had gone through. Having the financial rug pulled out from under us... not being able to get a home without help from someone, etc...

I started to read the book, and picked up a few good tidbits here and there. I could really relate, because as a Gen Xer, it is the first account of our lives and the struggle we have had compared to those who came before. Ever single thing has lined up against us to punish us. (GenY is in the same boat, but doesn't care as much, since they never saw the "good life" like we did in the 90s)

Anyway, I was going to send this book up to my Mother, who can't understand why I'm not a millionaire yet. (duh)

Well, it turns out I can't send the book up. It's written too poorly to hold any credibility. It's written like a high school paper by a girl who lost half her notes and then found them at the end of writing. She says the same thing over and over and over.... there is no orderly presenatation of facts. No sensible flow, and no way I could even suggest this book to anyone to read. (I had planned on sending copies to many people)

So I would suggest to anyone thinking about getting this book, wait until one comes out that is written better.

PS: There was very little editing too... typos, grammar issues, mixed up garbled paragraphs... yuck.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"It's time to ask ourselves, what good is an economy that generates $11 trillion when one third of us go without health insurance? Where three quarters of us can't afford to get a four year degree? Where more than half of us lose a day's pay if we're sick? Where half of us must go back to work less than three months after having a baby?" For describing the problem, Draut gets six stars. For her solution, she gets minus two stars. And, the persons most afflicted are more than likely not to vote or vote against their own self interest over some silly single issue. The strapped are rather like the impoverished who were supposed to know their place in Adam Hochschild's "Bury the Chains." The big question is: Now, what are you going to do about it? Recommended reading, all the same
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299 of 413 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The central thesis of this book is that young people are drowning in debt, and specifically student loan debt. (Draut also talks about credit card debt, but that appears to be presented as more of a derivative problem: young people need to rely on credit cards to live because their student loan debts are so high they otherwise could not meet their routine expenses). The problem, according to Draut, is that the government is simply not "giving" (as opposed to "loaning") students enough money to complete college or graduate school. Thus, students graduate with so much debt that they just can't get ahead in life, and spend their 20's and 30' trying to stay afloat with no real chance of getting ahead. The solution, according to Draut, is for people to pay more taxes. Draut suggets capping the home mortgage interest deduction at $10,000 (p. 226), raising the social security ceiling beyond $87, 900 (p. 228), increasing payroll taxes (p. 233), rolling back recent tax cuts, etc., etc.

But Draut's own statisticts undercut her conclusion and show that she is laying blame at the wrong doorstep. While she correctly notes that recent graduates are indeed in greater debt than students in years past, she completely ignores the fact that this is clearly not due to reduced funding in the form of grants to students. (She notes that funding has in fact increased over the past 25 years). Draut identifies the real problem in her introduction: college tuition and fees have gone up much, much faster than inflation in the past 25 years. (p.8.) She then does not even bother to ask the most obvious question: why? Who's fault is this? She fails to lay any blame whatsoever on the colleges themselves, who have utterly failed to keep tuition and fees in line with inflation. Instead, she simply blames the government (and taxpayers) for not being willing to continue to pay, without question, these rising costs by continually giving more and more free money (i.e. "grants") as opposed to loans, to the students.

The real question Draut should be asking is why has the cost of college risen so much in the past 25 years? Do some Google searches and you will find the answer pretty quickly (Hint: it isn't because the education has gotten better). It is because college administrators have decided that they need to charge you, the students, more money in order to fund the multitudes of social engineering projects that they have determined should be present on college campuses. (Note: the cost of attending both public and private universities has far outpaced inflation. Thus, the rising costs at public universities cannot be blamed solely on reduced government support).

Message to Draut: I and millions of other taxpayers are not interested in paying more taxes in order to indirectly subsidize these projects. If college administrators think these projects are so important, they need to figure out a way to pay for them consistent with an internal budget that does not require them to gouge students or taxpayers.

Another problem with this book is that several of Draut's examples of struggling young people appear to have dug their own financial grave by making irresponsible choices. Take poor "Elaine", 27, whom we are supposed to feel sorry for because she has $40,000 in credit card debt. (p. 109) Elaine racked up credit card debt because she had to buy new furniture, so that her apartment would look like an "adult's apartment, not an annex of her dorm room." (p. 109). We also learn that despite her debts, Elaine "has no regrets" because "she thinks about the things she did - - studying abroard in Scotland, flying to Paris, having the perfect wedding - - and knows it would never have been possible without credit." (p. 109)

You have got to be kidding! Second Message to Drout: I and millions of other taxpayers are not interested in paying more taxes to subsidize the lifestyle of people like Elaine. If she wants to live abroad in Scotland, jet off to Paris, and, have that oh so perfect wedding, she should figure out how to pay for that herself. (Quick note on weddings: Draut gives several examples of young people going into debt because they used credit cards to fly all over the country to attend friends' weddings. I cannot believe Drout has the nerve to suggest that taxpayers should indirectly subsidize this kind of behavior.)

Draut herself also serves as an unsympathtic example. On pages, 1-2, she talks about how she found herslf at age 30 sitting in her living room, broke, but with a massive CD collection spread out over her living room floor. She then explains that she was in drowing in debt (student loans and credit cards), and was forced to sell some of her CD's in order to get money to pay her bills. Again, you have got to be kidding. Are we supposed to feel sorry for her? CD's are a luxury item, now costing almost $20 each. I can't tell you how many times I have been in a music store, wanting to buy CD's, but restrained myself out of a sense of fiscal responsibility. Maybe if Draut had the same sense of restraint, she would not have found herself in such a mess.

Final message to Draut: I and millions of other taxpayers are not interested in paying more taxes so that you can own a massive CD collection. Here's a better solution to the problem than raising taxes: teach young people that if you can't afford something, you should not buy it.
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