I have a bite at Seba Seba or Mama’s Empanadas on Northern Boulevard before strolling back through residential streets of large apartment buildings and small homes.
I pass small retail shops, Ingrid’s salon where I get my hair cut, and the Roosevelt Avenue station—a thoroughfare for buses and trains—before circling around, passing countless street vendors, to peer into the fast-paced south Asian markets and gander at the many small restaurants, like Delhi Heights, Takhali Kitchen and Afghan Kebab House.
If I go out of my way before returning home, I’ll pass I.S. 230, my polling place, where I will be voting this year.
Today, Jackson Heights retains its character and community, but things have begun to change. On my walk, I also pass Banana Republic and Gap outlet stores. A Famiglia Pizza. A Caffe Bene. Chipotle. Obtrusive corporate storefronts that, combined with rising rents in nearby neighborhoods, are signs of gentrification.
I’m 24, and when I vote in November I’ll be thinking about my financial stability and how it can prevent me from achieving my long-term goals. One of those goals, affording a place of my own, is fundamentally linked with the city’s rising rents.
But that’s only one facet of the several overarching economic issues facing the young people of New York City.
Out of college, I worked for a low wage in a mid-wage industry as a contractor on a part-time basis. After some time, I became a part-time employee, but low pay and economic uncertainties prevented me from moving out of my parents’ home.
This wasn’t how I envisioned my first two years after college graduation.
There’s data to back up the normality of this experience. A report released by city Comptroller Scott Stringer in April details the poor economic outlook for millennials living in the city. It highlights the stark decrease in earning potential for young people in New York.
A 29-year-old in 2014 was taking home roughly 10 percent less in real earnings than someone the same age in 2000; a 22-year-old in 2014 (that was me!) was making roughly 20 percent less than if they had been that age fourteen years earlier.
Why else is this happening? Even in what are considered mid or high-wage industries, employers are offering lower wages. Large corporations and small employers, alike, flout labor regulations by labeling workers as independent contractors.
Here, employers misclassify employees as contractors, and thereby avoid paying for things like family and medical leave, unemployment insurance, overtime compensation and other benefits, while also not having to ensure minimum wage and workplace safety protections.
With little bargaining power, workers are forced to accept lower pay and no benefits or search for similar inadequate employment elsewhere.
Beyond affordable housing and workforce issues, millennials in New York City are dealing with a deteriorating public university system. Each of the last five years, students attending four-year colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system have had to pay higher tuitions than the year before.
While enrollment has increased at CUNY four-year colleges, state funding for these schools has decreased by 17 percent over the last eight years adjusted for inflation. Students are taking longer to graduate because of systemic capacity problems.
I attended CUNY’s Hunter College. The promise of CUNY should be a highly affordable, quality public college education. Instead, students heading to CUNY can only look towards higher tuition costs at bloated, poorly resourced schools where it is hard to graduate on time.
If the state cannot adequately fund our public colleges and our public colleges cannot adequately educate and graduate students in four years with little or no debt, then the economic future of millennials and the generations to come are at further risk.
Institutionalizing the apprenticeship model in colleges and workplaces across the country—through passage of the federal LEAP and PACE acts—will help many young people enter the workforce with good jobs, improve their long-term employment potential and increase their lifetime earnings.
There is much that can be done on a city and state level here in New York to expand these programs and ensure that we tackle the economic challenges facing my generation.
We, as millennials, the largest generation in the U.S., must demonstrate our numbers to affect local politics. We must show up to community meetings to fight rezoning plans and demand the city redefine housing affordability policies.
We must put our support behind candidates that fight to strengthen and protect the rights of workers. We must hold elected officials accountable when they fail to invest in public education. Depressed wages and skyrocketing rents will not work for us—or any of the working families in New York—and we must make our elected officials respond to these concerns.
On my walk through Jackson Heights, I also see a new commercial building rebuilt after it was gutted by a fire in April 2014. Now, with its new office and retail space for rent, it sits with a bright sheen looking just a little different from its surroundings.
What entities move in might signal whether or not I’ll be able to afford to live in my neighborhood in the coming years. Though clearly, Washington, Albany, the City Council, regulators and employers—with their influence on my economic future—will all have a say in it too.
Arthur Tarley is campaigns coordinator at Everytown for Gun Safety. He continues to live in Jackson Heights, advocate for progressive issues and perform improv comedy. All views expressed are his own.