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I'd like to tell you about an email I've been carrying around for a month now. It is from a young man whom I know, a fairly recent college graduate. He was writing in response to a column I wrote a while back that argued that the discussions about who is rich and who isn't struck me as disingenuous, given just how it is that some people get to six figures these days — including a police officer married to a nurse. And I said that slicing the onion that way doesn't begin to address the kind of staggering inequality and sense of unfairness that so many people feel these days.
And this email is what he wrote me back (this is the whole thing. I've only deleted the names for privacy):
"Hey Michel, I listened to the second half of your show today on my way to work. The bit at the end where you talked about money and taxes really resonated with me. So far in following this debate, I've been really frustrated when I hear people talk about "protecting" folks who earn over $ 200,000 a year.
I have four employers (not counting myself). I work many seven-day weeks, commuting upwards of 12 hours a week, and I make about a tenth of that. And I live in the same city that the $ 200,000 earners live in.
This is not to complain. I am a single 22-year-old, 15 months out of college. A sixth of us are now below the poverty line, trying to raise a family on less than what I make for myself. In Washington, D.C., that number is one in five. But it has still always seemed ridiculous to me that with around 10 percent of Americans making zero, John Boehner wants to make sure we don't touch the incomes of people who make six figures and live in relative comfort.
Your piece was the first time I have listened and really empathized with the struggle of those families. As you put it, they could be two high school principals or veteran cops, etc. I always write that tax bracket off as "rich people," but there is even a widening gap between them and the CEOs, hedge fund managers and oil execs who make millions a year. I'm pretty sure they don't have to sell their possessions or go to the dollar store to buy bulk cartons of Ramen noodles like I do, but they struggle to put their kids through school nonetheless.
I was wondering if you have anything to say to young people during these times. C and L [his parents] are great, but I feel like many Baby Boomers I vent to respond with, "I struggled when I was young too, you'll survive."
But most members of your generation graduated during a period of relative economic boom [though unemployment did hit 10 percent in the early 1980s], and we are now facing most bleak economic situation in any of our lifetimes. When I talk to a lot of the people I graduated high school with, I hear total despair and hopelessness.
I know many unemployed young people who are smarter and more driven than myself. They feel like they have worked hard throughout their education only to be stripped of their future due to circumstances out of their control. Upon graduation, there is nothing to do but apply, apply, and apply again ... maybe flip burgers or bus tables while living at home to stay afloat on the student loans.
We can stay in limbo with unpaid internships here and there, but the American dream we've been promised just isn't happening these days. There is no easy solution, but there are comforting words. You seem to be good at producing them. If you have any advice I can pass on to those eager, frustrated, disillusioned kids, it would be much appreciated."
That's the email. And that, my friends, is to me what the Occupy movement is all about, isn't it?
So what should I say to this fine young man? And while you're at it, candidates, what do you?