This Mother's Day is a special one for me – it’s the last one I will celebrate before my son leaves home and heads off to college. As I prepare for this exciting rite of passage, I’ve been reflecting on just how much has changed for parents and teenagers since I left home for college.
I grew up in Dallas in the 1960s and 70s, in a solidly middle class family. My mom was a public school teacher and my dad was a credit manager at Sears. Their wages were enough to support our family, buy a house and two cars, and even afford a small airplane. My dad loved to fly, and we spent many weekends and holidays flying up to visit my grandparents in Kansas or heading out to a country lake for all-you-can-eat catfish.
When it came time for me to go to college, I could easily pay my own way at the University of Texas and cover my living expenses just by working part-time during school and full-time in the summers. Neither my parents nor I had to go into debt to pay for college, which made it easier for my parents to save for retirement and allowed me to be self-sufficient at a young age.
Public policies helped to create the large middle class my family was part of. Because of my father’s military service, the G.I. bill paid for him to go to college. Well-funded public schools and affordable college tuition made it easy for me to get the education I needed to start a career as a public interest lawyer.
A young person with similar family circumstances today faces a more challenging future. Wages have been stagnant for decades, and the federal minimum wage doesn’t come close to covering the cost of living. College tuition has exploded, forcing many young people and their families into debt that burdens young adults at the start of their careers and prevents parents from saving adequately for retirement. While we can afford to pay for my son's college education, many of his classmates aren't so fortunate. No wonder so few Texas students are completing higher education degrees – only 20 percent of Texas eighth graders in 2006 graduated from college by 2017.
I'm not blindly nostalgic for the way things used to be. My mom still holds a grudge against the lender who turned down their first home mortgage after refusing to count her full-time salary as part of their family income – a common discriminatory practice in those days. People of color were excluded entirely from many of the programs that benefited families like mine, and LGBTQ Texans didn’t even have the limited protections afforded them today.
But if we want our children to thrive, we need to take a hard look at the challenges they face today and the policies that created or exacerbated them. We need to insist that our elected leaders enact public policies that expand opportunity for more hard-working Texans, instead of padding the overfull pockets of the wealthy. Lawmakers should boost funding to K-12 public schools, the foundation of our future workforce. Higher education should connect students to careers while keeping their out-of-pocket costs low. If students are graduating so saddled with debt that they can't innovate and grow, then we're doing something wrong.
I remain hopeful despite the challenges. As the daughter and granddaughter of teachers, I’m heartened by teachers around the country who are organizing to demand living wages and well-funded schools.
In February I witnessed hundreds of young people at Austin City Hall until after midnight, there to testify in support of a policy to ensure all workers can earn paid sick leave. In March I walked arm in arm with Texas women young and old who are fed up with earning 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. In April I proudly marched alongside my son and his classmates to demand sensible gun control at the March for Our Lives.
On Mother's Day, my husband and son will take me to dinner at L’Oca D’Oro, a locally-owned Italian restaurant that strongly supports fair wages and paid sick leave. What better way to celebrate motherhood than at a restaurant that supports the right of all working parents to earn a living wage and care for sick children without sacrificing their pay?
The policies that propelled my family into the middle class didn’t come easy – they required marches in the streets, voters at the polls, and the tireless resolve of visionary Americans. I see sparks of change in Texas and across the country for policies that enable children of all backgrounds to prosper rather than struggle to make ends meet.
Ann Beeson is CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. She lives in Austin with her husband and her son.