By Alex H. Nagler

The average salary for a white male emerging from college with a four-year degree is the same as it was three decades ago. Adjusted for inflation, wages have remained stagnant over the past three decades while costs of nearly everything else have risen exponentially, forcing those with four-year degrees to emerge from college holding an average of $20,000 in debt. Reread those two sentences and let them sink in.

This economic issue was the topic of first of three brown bag lectures provided by The Century Foundation, a nonprofit progressive think tank. Entitled “It’s Still The Economy, Stupid,” the lecture dealt with the blunt truth on how this generation will be the first to be economically disadvantaged by no fault of its own. Daniel Brooks, author of The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America moderated the panel, which consisted of Tamara Draut, the Director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos and author of Strapped: Why America’s 20-and-30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, Jeff Madrick the Editor of Challenge Magazine and Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, and Amaad Rivera, the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative Leader at United for a Fair Economy.

The panelists started with the simple revelation that those in the audience had been failed by their government and were at no fault for the impending economic crisis, but regardless, would be the victims hit the hardest. Not the cheeriest way to start an afternoon, but a sobering one none the less. Speaking to a crowd of 100something interns for various Democratic state and citywide officials, the message was a clear one: you’re screwed.

“The fact that your generation will be the first to not be better off than their parents doesn’t mean that someone who grew up in a McMansion won’t have their children grow up in a mansion, or that someone who went to a Near Ivy won’t have their children go to an Ivy League. It means that someone who is the first in their family to go to college may not be able to have their kids go too.”

Ms. Draut argued that in the same time period that wages have remained stagnant, college tuition has tripled. The cost to attend an institution like Harvard was below $5,000 a year at the start of the 1980’s. SUNY costs were well below $5,000 at this time as well. Today, Harvard costs roughly $46,000 and Stony Brook costs roughly $17,000 (dorming, in state). It is easy to see how most people graduate with $20,000 in loan debt, with one fourth of these having more than $25,000. Mr. Rivera noted that there are those who view this debt as “good debt,” but it is still debt regardless of what it bought you. It will still adversely affect your credit score. This debt is more of an investment than the simple credit card debt on purchased items, but it will still take years to pay off.

So what went wrong? Those in attendance felt it was the simple fact that the maxim “The Personal Is Political” has become obsolete. People failed to realize that personal issues, like ensuring that mothers should have time off for maternity leave, were not to be kept to themselves, but were political issues to rally around. Combined with a slow in productivity, the rise of global labor participation, and the failure of pubic policy to ensure the rights of the worker, things started to falter.

There was a time that the government was the one to look out for its people. Mr. Madrick noted it wasn’t the effort of local doctors to mass immunize children with the polio vaccine, it was the government. He argued that college, being one of the most important investments a country can make in its populace, should either be tuition capped or free of charge. If college cost lest, young people could invest high interest savings accounts with compounded interest.

Overall, the message of the day was for young people to become financially literate to ensure that they can ensure that they will be able to negotiate for better conditions. Understanding how to negotiate is only the beginning. “We’re going to have to stop looking back. Society is change, and not just change from a politician running on it” even if that politician is “a good start.”

Alex H. Nagler had to throw in an Obama reference.