Student Debt Alters Class Status

A college degree has long been a ticket to the middle class. A college degree typically confers higher pay, stronger job security, greater home ownership and comparatively stable households. Those benefits have long been seen as worth the sacrifices often required, from deferred income to student debt.

Yet college graduates aren’t as likely as they once were to feel they belong to the middle class, according to a collaborative analysis of the 2018 General Social Survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and GSS staff. The survey found that 35% of graduates described themselves as working or lower class, up from just 20% who felt that way in 1983. By contrast, only 64% of college grads say they feel they belong to the middle or upper class.

The findings might seem surprising given that the nearly decade-long U.S. economic expansion is on the verge of becoming the longest on record and unemployment is an ultra-low 3.8 percent. Yet the financial insecurities that afflict many college graduates point to the widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. Dan Black, an economist at the University of Chicago, suggested that the consequences of the trend could include delayed family formation, lower levels of consumer spending and, eventually, slower economic growth. “Concerns like this will definitely have impacts for the economy, Black said.

The survey shows that Americans — both college graduates and those without degrees — have broadly benefitted as the country healed from the Great Recession, which ended in 2009. But across age groups, a college degree has become less of an assurance of upward mobility. College graduates ages 50 and over, as well as those under 35, are less likely than they were in 1993 to describe themselves as middle or upper class.

All of which suggests that while college still offers a path upward, that route has been narrowed by student debt loads, an outpacing of home prices relative to wages and widening economic inequality. The income disparities go well beyond the gap between the top 1% of earners and all other households. Disparities are widening even within many occupations, including financial advisers, lawyers and physicians. The result is that an ostensibly middle class job title may provide a pay level more associated with a lower middle class job.

The survey finds that Americans’ satisfaction with their personal finances has finally regained its pre-recession levels even though this hasn’t led to increased identification with the middle class. Both people who have graduated from college and those who haven’t are now as likely as they were before the recession to say their financial situations have improved in the past year.

But Americans are also more likely than they were before the recession to say they feel overworked. College graduates are likelier than those without degrees to say they work overtime (80% to 70% and that they have more work to do than they can complete (40% to 30%).

All told, student debt totals roughly $1.5 trillion — a more than five-fold increase since 2004, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. To help manage the burden, many parents and older family members have borrowed to fund their children’s educations.

Federal researchers concluded that the increase in education debt between 2005 and 2014 has prevented homeownership for roughly 400,000 young people. At the same time, many surveys show that student debt has also delayed marriages and household formation.

Economists have noted that rising college debt has in effect become an entry fee for the job market. Nearly 80% of the net 2 million job gains last year went to college graduates, even though just a third of adults hold a degree. But about 60% of college graduates in 2017 had student loans with the average borrower leaving college with about $30,000 in debt, according to the College Board.

“Young people are facing unprecedented challenges that are preventing them from achieving what we all consider to be the American Dream,” said Soncia Coleman, a senior director at Young Invincibles, an advocacy group for millennials. “They need the education, but the cost to get it is astronomical.”

Climate Change Visible Worldwide

From the drunken forests of Alaska, to the vanishing glaciers of Glacier National Park, to the bleaching of coral reefs in the Florida Keys, climate change is impacting our world.

The drunken forests are caused by softening of the permafrost which leads to tilting of the trees. Rising temperatures are threatening the glaciers and warming waters re causing a shift in the composition of oceans that has bleached out color in the reefs.

“There’s more carbon in the water,” explains Mike Gunter Jr. “Some corals are more resilient than others. You’ll see parts of a reef that look really good,” but in others, change is noticeable.

Gunter, a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. has written a new book, “Tales of an Ecotourist: What Travel to Wild Places Can Teach Us About Climate Change.”

El Nino, a cyclical pattern of Pacific storms caused by warm water, has become stronger in recent years, researchers say. That has affected Ecuador’s famed Galapagos Islands known for bird, reptile and sea life.

The lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan, is shrinking, Gunter reports. In the past 40 years, the salt-laden sea has diminished by a third and dropped 80 feet. Much of the change is due to increased use of water from the Jordan River for irrigation.

The flooding which has long plagued the canal city of Venice, Italy, has intensified in recent years. Some areas are regularly inundated at peak high tides. The city is developing plans to build flood walls and other barriers to keep the sea at bay.

The types of species found at Acadia National Park, Maine, is shifting. The area’s lobster population is predicted to migrate north in search of cooler waters, as will the whales that pass by offshore.

In Antarctica, gentoo penguins thrive because they build pebble nests on shorelines newly exposed by melting ice. On the other hand, adelle penguins are having trouble because they fish from floating sea ice, which is less plentiful.

The south-central Kansas town of Greensburg is an environmental survivor, Gunter says. It was nearly destroyed by a 2007 tornado but has been rebuilt as one of the most eco-conscious places in the world. It was the first U.S. city to fully adopt LED street lights, and it gets 100% of its power from renewable energy. It “has rebuilt itself stronger than before,” Gunter notes.

Climate Change Threatens Glaciers

Nearly half of the glaciers in World Heritage sites will disappear by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, according to a study the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) focused on the 46 World Heritage sites where glaciers are found.

The authors predict “glacier extinction by 2100 under a high emission scenario in 21 of the 46 natural World Heritage sites where glaciers are currently found,” IUCN said in a statement.

Sites likely to see the most severe ice-loss are Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which straddles the Alberta-Montana border.

Twelve North American conservation groups from the U.S. and Canada petitioned the World Heritage Committee to add Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park to the list of World Heritage Sites in danger due to impacts from climate change.

Climate change is causing rapid disappearance of the park’s glaciers and significant damage to the park’s vegetation and wildlife, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Glacier National Park once was home to approximately 150 glaciers, but only 27 remained as of 2006, and those are rapidly melting, according to CBD. Global warming is responsible for the disappearance of the park’s iconic glaciers.

“The glaciers that Glacier National Park was named for will vanish entirely by 2030 if current climate change trends continue,” said Kassie Siegel of CBD.

The Alps, Europe’s famous mountain range, still loom over the continent, but warming temperatures are taking a toll. Glaciers in The Alps are receding and plant life is changing as lowland species gain a foothold.

A drunken forest may sound like something out of a “Harry Potter” book, but it is a change caused by rising temperatures. As permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen ground, disappears in Alaska, trees begin to tilt. “There are forests that are leaning like a hurricane blew them. They look like they’ve had too much to drink,” says Mike Gunter Jr., a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

Climate Change Hammers Canada

From the temperate Pacific rainforests of British Columbia to the old French architecture of Montreal, the chilly, vital Arctic to Banff National Park, considered by many to be “the zenith of the entire Rocky Mountains,” Canada is incredibly beautiful and full of wonder. But all that wonder is at risk.

“The environmental threat to our world is greater than any time in human history. Just look around. We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change seared across the world,” says the Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change.

“Average temperatures in Canada have already increased by 1.7 degrees Celsius since 1948. Continued amplification of warming at high latitudes is projected under all scenarios of future climate change,” McKenna explains. “Along with higher temperatures and increased rainfall, we will see rising sea levels. Warmer waters and ocean acidification are expected to become increasingly evident over the next century.”
The nation has experienced a higher rate of warming than most other regions of the world, particularly in its far-north and west. This warming has been most pronounced in the winter and springtime, and it’s leading to a number of major impacts across the country. These include permafrost and ice melt in the Arctic, sea-level rise, and more frequent and severe extreme weather, such as once-uncommon heat extremes and major changes in precipitation.

The Arctic is an incredibly important and very fragile ecosystem – and it’s warming at a much faster rate than much of the rest of the world. Scientists are already seeing dramatic reductions in Arctic sea ice cover, particularly in the summertime. This shrinking sea ice disrupts normal ocean circulation and creates changes in climate and weather around the globe.

For the minister, seeing the human impacts of this warming on her fellow Canadians has hit by far the hardest. “This is not a matter of inconvenience to the Inuit – the melting of the sea ice and permafrost threaten the Inuit way of life and their very survival. The consequences are painful and profound.

Canada is largely thought of as a temperate-to-cool country, one insulated for the most part from the worst sorts of extreme weather. Or at least it wasn’t for much of the nation’s history. The last few decades, however, have brought dangerous changes to Canada’s climate and weather.

“In the Canadian West, wildfires rage stronger and harsher than ever before. We’ve witnessed cities and homes burning, ranchers losing their stables – and each fire season, more communities displaced by the flames,” McKenna explains. “On the prairies, droughts and floods occur with increasing frequency, and produce greater devastation for families and farmers whose homes and businesses are harmed.”

These devastating events are being driven in large part by ever-rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns. On average, Canada has become both warmer and wetter. But the amount and distribution of rain, snow and ice across Canada has also shifted.

Like so many places around the globe, Canada has seen an increase in hot extremes. Intense heat can have a serious impact on human health, and – thanks at least in part to climate change – days of extremely high temperatures and poor air quality are only becoming more frequent. Worse, these days hit vulnerable populations in urban centers the hardest – specifically, babies, children and seniors, as well as people who work outdoors or are already ill.

In early July 2018, the southern part of the Canadian province of Québec endured one such period of sweltering heat – and it took the lives of up to 54 people, most of them between the ages of 50 and 85. These changing circumstances also likely played a major role in the nation’s most destructive wildfire ever, when more than 88,000 people were evacuated from Fort McMurray in Alberta in May 2016. More than 2,400 homes and other buildings were destroyed.

“From 1983 to 2004, insurance claims in Canada from severe-weather events totaled almost $400 million a year. In the past decade alone, that amount tripled to more than $1 billion a year. Climate change is expected to cost Canada’s economy $5 billion a year by 2020, and as much as $43 billion a year by 2050. Inaction is simply not an option,” McKenna explained.

Driven by melting land ice and seawater warming and expanding, global sea levels could rise by as much as a meter, or perhaps even more, by the end of the century. Canada is a maritime nation. Eight of its 10 provinces and all three territories border ocean waters. That puts the western Arctic, Canada’s southeastern Atlantic Coast and major cities like Vancouver and Halifax right on the front lines of sea-level rise.

With oceans rising faster than at any time in almost 3,000 years and Antarctic ice loss now believed to be nearly three times greater than earlier estimates, there’s great cause for concern. Rising seas and increased storm surge height may cause flooding all along the country’s Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Beaufort Sea coasts, allowing salt water intrusion into some inland areas, potentially contaminating ground and surface freshwater.

“In our big, cold country on the upper half of North America, the environment impacts where Canadians live, how we work and how we see our future. Canadians, including myself, are focused on ensuring that we protect our environment all while creating good jobs and making sure our businesses are positioned to compete as we move to a cleaner and more sustainable future,” McKenna says.