What Do Millennials in Rural America Think About the State of Workplace Policy?

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Two researchers set out to find out what 10 working-class Millennials in southern Ohio think about work-family policy and the American Dream.

By Dwyer Gunn

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Wilmington, Ohio. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

For the last five years, Amber and David Lapp have been hard at work interviewing working-class Millennials in a small town in southern Ohio. For the Lapps, who are both research fellows at the conservative Institute for Family Studies, the goal was to learn about how these Millennials form relationships and families, as well as how those family arrangements work out.

Though the project was not overtly political in its nature, in the wake of the 2016 election, the Lapps wondered what some of their research subjects might have to say about labor and family policy in the age of Donald Trump. So they convened a focus group with 10 participants — all Millennials, all parents, all high school-educated (without college degrees).

“We wanted to be able to go a little bit more in depth about how a select group of parents are thinking about these issues so that their voices can be heard and their thoughts can be considered as the new administration and Congress convenes,” David Lapp says.

Their findings are illuminating, both for anyone curious about workforce policy and anyone interested in the day-to-day lives of working-class young people in conservative, middle America. To find out more, I spoke with David Lapp about what their focus group participants had to say.

The first big question you asked was about the challenges to achieving the American Dream. How did people answer that?

Well, one person said that the American Dream is almost impossible to achieve today. Her husband works full-time at a factory, making north of $15 an hour, and she works part time at McDonald’s, and they have three children that they’re raising. They recently moved in with her father because they couldn’t afford rent.

Another person said, “We hate living paycheck to paycheck.” People talked about rent being difficult to afford. Others talked about student loan debt — they went to college for a little but feel like they have nothing to show for it.

Another person whose girlfriend receives public housing assistance said that he worked at a factory for about a year or so, and he was getting promoted. But he was frustrated that it seemed like the more money that he made, the more difficult it was for them to get out of public housing because the public housing authority would say, “OK, well, now you’re making more money, so now we can charge you more for rent.” It felt to him like he was constantly behind.

You asked about a number of labor force and work-family proposals that had been floated by both political parties during the election. What were the proposals that people liked? And which proposals didn’t they like?(Editor’s Note: The policies were presented without any information about which politicians or political parties endorsed them.)

Everyone in the group would like to see Congress consider passing some form of paid parental leave. There was disagreement about how many weeks it should be, or if it should just be for mothers, or for mothers and fathers. And everyone thought that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Schedules That Work Act should be considered — they liked that.

Only two people out of the 10 wanted to see the minimum wage increase to $12 an hour, though half said they would like to see it raised to $10 an hour. So kind of cool toward the idea of a higher minimum wage, and we didn’t even talk about $15 an hour.

They surprisingly weren’t that enthusiastic about aspects of Trump’s childcare plan, which includes allowing stay-at-home mothers to deduct the average cost of childcare in their state from their taxes, which is a little bit surprising because several of the women in the group said they’d prefer to stay at home if they could. They were similarly cool to the idea of the government, as President-elect Trump has proposed, allowing low-income parents to put in money into a [tax-advantaged childcare savings account], and the government for low-income families would match up to about $500. They asked, “Well, where’s that money going to come from?”

Most of the people in the group were Trump supporters. We didn’t screen for who they supported, but they tended to lean politically conservative, and that came out in aspects of the discussion. Although, again, they also supported traditional liberal policies like paid parental leave and fair scheduling legislation.

I thought there was an interesting contradiction — people were worried about where the money was going to come from for some of these proposals, but then they also supported things like reducing the marriage penalties and adjusting the phase-out rates for public assistance.

Right, it seems like the participants were happy to receive public assistance, so long as they’re working, and they seem to be OK with people receiving assistance so long as they’re working. But they get very angry when talking about people who they believe are undeserving or, in their view, are not working and are receiving assistance.

But it seems like, if you’re working, and your employer is not paying you a lot of money, in order to get ahead, sure, the government should help us out. And, in fact, it shouldn’t immediately penalize us just because we earn more or we get married, so that we can get a solid foundation in place. And then once we have that solid foundation in place, then we don’t want that assistance anymore—we want to be economically independent.

But in order to reach the American Dream, there was broad consensus that we do need the help of government to get there.

Let’s also talk about financial education. Obviously, there have been a lot of big economic trends that have depressed wages, and I don’t want to overlook those. But do you think, based on people’s responses, that there’s room to shore up economic stability with just a little bit of education about budgeting and saving?

I think there is. It’s hard to know for sure, without knowing all the details of people’s budgets. But as an indication, one of the participants in the group … he works, his wife stays at home. He’s making a little bit north of $15 per hour. He has worked a lot of overtime, like 70 to 80 hours some weeks in the past five years or so. He and his wife are very careful with their money — he talked about how he barely eats anything for breakfast, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and then a modest dinner. He talks a lot about trying to be frugal with the money that they have. And he was the only person in the group who is a homeowner, and he mentioned a couple times that he thought we needed to talk about people being a little bit more responsible with the money that they do have.

And one of the other women in the group, who is living paycheck to paycheck, she mentioned this too. She said, “You know, I think that in our high schools, they should teach us a little bit more about money and how to use it well and how to invest it and get more out of the money that we do have.”

There’s definitely room to further explore that. At the same time, it’s also true that the gentlemen who’s working 70 to 80 hours has barely been able to see his family most weeks.

The question is: Is that really the price people should have to pay in order to reach the American Dream? I don’t think it is. I think that we can always do more with what we have, and I think that would be helpful, but it’s certainly not a magic wand that’s going to fix everything.

The other theme that emerged was this idea that the problems of working-class voters are kind of being lost in the void of partisan bickering over things like immigration and abortion. I thought it was interesting that you had participants saying they’d like to see more compromise and more discussion of these real problems.

Yeah, that was a really interesting comment. Toward the end of the focus group, one of the participants said: “We haven’t talked in this group about the hot-button issues, like abortion and immigration. We’ve been talking about real problems that affect people in the group.”

Now, of course, I don’t want to suggest that immigration and abortion aren’t real issues that matter — they do. But I think his comment was getting at the point that all of them in the group were feeling the pressure of living paycheck to paycheck. And that’s something that, regardless of one’s race or ethnicity, many families — African-American families, Hispanic families, white families — are feeling right now.

Focusing on some of these policies that we talked about — like providing some form of paid parental leave, doing something to try to make service industry workers’ schedules more predictable, providing more immediate tax relief for workers so that they can keep more of their money in each paycheck — these could be very concrete, tangible policies that could help many working-class families, regardless of race or ethnicity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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