Congress members hear from young workers
College costs, student loan debt and net neutrality were among the topics raised by some of Oregon's youngest workers when they met Monday (Aug. 28) with two U.S. representatives, both elected in 2012.
About two dozen employees of Ruby Receptionists, a Portland company that serves 6,300 small businesses through technology and human interactions, questioned Reps. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon and Eric Swalwell of California.
Bonamici represents the 1st District, which covers northwest Oregon, including Portland west of the Willamette River.
Swalwell, 36, was elected to the House in 2012 from an East Bay district stretching from Oakland to San Jose. He leads the Future Forum, whose 27 members of the House — all Democrats — are from the nation's youngest generation born in 1980 and later. They have fanned out across the country over the past few years to learn about issues important to their generation.
"The vast majority of our employees are millennials, so it was exciting they chose us to hear from," said Jill Nelson, chief executive of Ruby Receptionists, which she founded in 2003.
One of its job sites is in Beaverton.
One 25-year-old woman, a company employee and a Portland Community College student in business and early childhood education, said what was on many of their minds.
"I find it difficult to focus on schoolwork and academic courses while trying to provide for myself," she said. "I find it difficult to balance the cost of living with the high cost of education."
Swalwell said his student debt is about $100,000 — and that the annual cost of college has jumped from about $9,500 in 1980, when he was born, to about three times that total today.
"I think the challenge for young people right now is to see if they can adapt as they go to college … and come out with relevant skills that are going to mean something and give them an opportunity to start a family, buy a home, and maybe go out and start their own business one day," he said.
"If a kid is qualified, he or she shouldn't have to worry about (the cost of) education."
Bonamici said the first-year salary in her first job — as a staff attorney at the Federal Trade Commission — exceeded the debt she incurred at Lane Community College and the University of Oregon, where she earned bachelor's and law degrees.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she said, student costs were lower and direct state support for higher education was greater.
She has proposed legislation, the SIMPLE Act, with cosponsors from both parties to simplify paperwork for income-based student loan repayments. She also wants to gear college work-study programs toward interests and career goals of students.
"We share the priority that education is a good investment, from pre-kindergarten to higher education," said Bonamici, who sits on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
They also took part in a roundtable discussion of the issue at Portland State University.
One employee expressed concern about "net neutrality," the principle that internet service providers treat all data the same and that no one gets priority. But open internet rules, which have been in effect since 2015, are being challenged in the Federal Communications Commission under the leadership of a chairman named by President Donald Trump.
Millennials, usually defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, now have edged out the post-World War II baby boomers as the largest share of the nation's population. They also are the largest share of the U.S. workforce and considered the most knowledgeable about technology.
"If we as leaders do our jobs right, what we do should continue to create more jobs than it displaces," Swalwell said.
Afterward, Swalwell said he found that younger people also are dismayed by Trump's announced withdrawal of the United States from the Paris global accord on climate change, which lets nations set voluntary targets for reducing greenhouse gases.
"When they see that our government — our country, which is usually a leader in the biggest challenges we face — just push back from the table of nations … that concerns them," he said. "I think there is a recognition in our generation that we need clean air and water and we have a responsibility to address that."
The topic did not come up during the meeting, but Bonamici — the top Democrat on the environment subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — said Congress should brush aside Trump's proposed spending cuts in climate research.
"I hope that what is happening now with the tragedy in Houston and the city flooding (from Hurricane Harvey) will cause more people to step back and take a look at why we are in this situation and what we can do to better predict and address these severe weather events," she said.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and superstorm Sandy in 2012, each with damaging effects, were described as unusually powerful but rare storms.
"But how many once-in-a-lifetime severe weather events can we have?" Bonamici asked.
Adds that one of Ruby Receptionists job sites is in Beaverton.