What Issues Must Candidates Address To Win Over Younger Voters? A New Study Says Racial And Social Disparities

Floyd Caravan Protest Youth
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Floyd Caravan Protest Youth
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

What Issues Must Candidates Address To Win Over Younger Voters? A New Study Says Racial And Social Disparities

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Editor’s Note: This interview took place on May 26, 2020, just one day after the death of George Floyd, and does not address the national protests that followed.

The coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and the unreset that spread throughout the country will have a profound impact on November’s presidential election.

What’s less obvious is how the candidates will address the issues most important to young people, said Cathy Cohen, director of the GenForward project which surveyed more than 3,000 people ages 18 to 36 across all demographics.

Those issues include racial inequalities, universal basic income, prison reform and immigration, Cohen said.

“If we’re going to come pull together [any] kind of a policy agenda that speaks to the condition of young people, we want to be very clear about how they differ and … how they share a response,” Cohen said.

There’s a misperception that millennials and [Gen-Zers] all feel the same way about issues. But these generations are actually the most racially diverse in history, Cohen said, and the survey shows a real difference based on race, gender and class.

Cohen sat down with Jenn White on Reset for a conversation about the pandemic, politics and the ways in which young people want the government to reflect their priorities.

Here are four takeaways:

Young women on car at Floyd protest
A group of young women hold up signs at a Chicago protest against the killing of George Floyd. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Young people want the government to take a larger role in social issues.

Those social issues include universal basic income, protecting immigrants from ICE, releasing people incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, protecting renters from evictions and help repaying student loans, Cohen said.

“One of the things that’s always been interesting about these generations of young people is really the ways in which they’re thinking expansively … about the state,” Cohen said.

She added that young people are essentially looking for a “safety net for individuals in this country” so they can take care of themselves and their families.

And turnout in November’s election will likely be impacted by who former Vice President Joe Biden chooses as a running mate.

Many young people, particularly people of color, say they are not excited to vote for Biden — even if they say they won’t vote for President Donald Trump, Cohen said.

“The question is the question of excitement,” she said, adding that it might hinge on Biden’s choice for vice president. “Can he take someone that young people will be excited about or young adults will be excited about and want to go to the polls? … Can he promote some of the policies that we just talked about … and grab the attention of younger adults and send them hopefully to the polls.”

Your Fight Is My Fight poster
A sign at a Chicago march protesting George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

The pandemic has shown the policies many young people support can actually work.

“For a long time, we were told that certain things were impossible,” Cohen said. “We couldn’t stop landlords from evicting tenants. … We couldn’t release those who are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. And suddenly, under the pandemic, we’re beginning to see that … yes, those are possible.”

Cohen said young people across racial lines say these policies should be implemented during the pandemic. And a large number say it should continue after the crisis is over.

The pandemic is seen as more of a threat to young people of color.

Cohen’s research shows the majority of young people — across racial lines — worry about family members being infected, that health care will be overrun and the pandemic will have a negative long-term impact on the economy.

“What’s interesting is when you ask … ‘Is the pandemic a threat to your personal financial situation?’ — we see African American, Asian American and Latinx young people majorities say it’s a major threat. And young whites are really split,” Cohen said.

Young people of color have also been targeted for ticketing or policing during the pandemic for not social distancing — which impacts their trust in information from government officials, she said.

“They have repeatedly seen that, in fact, they are treated differently, that they are demeaned often by the state … and by the forces of the government like the police,” Cohen said. “It’s not surprising, then, that they are less likely to trust those entities, whether in terms of the services that they’re providing or the information that they’re providing.”

Young black protestors George Floyd
A group of young African Americans protest police brutality at a rally in Chicago. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Youth are more likely to trust their own circles for information.

The same is true for how young people view mainstream media. Instead, Cohen said that many young people are looking to their peers or community organizations for information.

“Community based organizations that have a reputation and a history of being straightforward and fighting for those communities, that it’s a different level of engagement,” Cohen said.

And in order to get information into communities, “we have to kind of empower a different set of individuals and organizations to do that work and to provide them with the resources that they need to be effective,” she said.

Mary Hall is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @hall_marye. Bianca Martin produced the audio version of this story for Reset.

Correction: A previous version of this story used the term Gen X, meaning the generation preceding millennials, instead of Gen Z, the generation that follows millennials.