We Need a GI Bill for Gen Z | Opinion

When tallying the toll the pandemic has taken on our country, America's young people are near the top of the list. They have lost a year of childhood or adolescence or college, a year they will never get back. And the devastating rise in depression, suicidal thoughts and even suicide itself among young people is proof of how deeply impacted they are feeling.

One study found that mental health insurance claims for teenagers doubled during the early months of the pandemic, while another poll found that one in three teenage girls and one in five teenage boys" have experienced new or worsening anxiety" since the pandemic began. Worse, the Centers for Disease Control reported that a quarter of young people—a truly staggering number—have considered suicide at some point during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The CDC also found a significant rise in emergency room mental health visits for children.

Beyond the mental health toll there is the economic toll that the pandemic will have and is already having on our nation's young people. Older members of Gen Z are already having to compete with millions of unemployed workers for a dwindling number of jobs. If they are lucky enough to land a job, remote working has left many feeling more stressed and less connected in the workplace. They have also lost valuable face time with bosses and decision makers within their corporation, networking which often leads to job promotion and higher earnings.

This is especially a problem given that those aged 18-34 are earning up to 20% less than Boomers did at their age. On top of this, Gen Z is paying twice as much as Boomers for college, leaving them either saddled with debt or the choice of forgoing higher education altogether, which many are.

All of these burdens are even heavier for low-income kids and young adults. The failures of the public schools throughout the pandemic have widened the gap between high and low income students such that it may be unbridgeable at this point. And it is service industry jobs—those that the working class increasingly rely upon—that have disappeared during the pandemic by the millions, with 10 million still not recovered.

This situation is as untenable as it is unfair; we have asked so much of our young people. They deserve something in return.

empty classroom
A classroom is empty with the lights off on what would otherwise be a blended learning school day on November 19, 2020 at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill, a sweeping piece of legislation which helped returning veterans go to college, buy homes, and build the most prosperous economy this country has ever seen. It was a move by a grateful nation to thank returning troops for the sacrifices they made for the greater good.

While lockdown pales in comparison to storming the beaches of Normandy, Gen Z deserves our help for the sacrifices they've been called upon to make because of the pandemic. And if we don't help them, the toll may be even greater; far from a Great Generation, they will become a Lost Generation. The moral imperative is clear.

To begin with, we must find ways to address the lost year so many of our children have just experienced and the growing cost of education. While I and many of my fellow travelers on the left advocate free tuition at state colleges, a more passable solution might be expanding Pell Grants at four-year colleges and making community colleges free.

Doubling Pell Grants would not only help students in crisis. It would also "significantly boost the grant's purchasing power to help more low- and moderate-income students afford college for years to come," writes Shelbe Klebs, an education policy adviser at the think tank Third Way.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is looking at making community colleges free, which would significantly reduce student loan debt for those who start at a community college and transfer to a four-year university, as well as those who simply choose to pursue associates degrees or vocational training. This would be a boon to Gen Z and go a long way to help address the student loan crisis.

But we must go further than simply making college more affordable. Like the GI Bill, we must look holistically at the economy and find ways in which we can make it fairer and more equitable for our children. We should look to VA loans and fully forgivable second mortgages for first time homebuyers, enabling more young people to get on the housing ladder. Baby bonds would help young people struggling to find the means to start a family, or even think about starting a family.

Most importantly, we need to think globally about how each of our agenda items can help this generation specifically. We can't afford to lose them.

A boost into adulthood is the least we can do given that we've asked our children to sacrifice one of the best years of their lives. They largely came through for us. Now it's time we return the favor.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes about the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy based in Tennessee.

The views in this article are the writer's own.