It’s not the economy, stupid. But it is debt. College debt, to be precise.

That’s the pocketbook issue that’s propelling young voters to the polls in 2020, and it just might be at the top of the list, according to Pennsylvania students who attended the International Young Leaders Conference and Career Fair held recently at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

The conference, co-sponsored by PennLive, is an annual event organized by summer interns of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg to engage high school and college students in civic and global issues. This year’s conference focused on “Youth and Politics: 2020.”

During tough economic times there are pocketbook issues that galvanize older voters: the economy, a volatile stock market, unemployment and jobs. That’s a group who has to worry about having roofs over their heads, utility bills and medical expenses. But the politically engaged young people who attended the young leaders conference seemed to have different priorities, and the economy wasn’t high among them.

College debt was. It’s one of the single biggest issues for high school and college students about to enter the voting booths for the first time. They wanted to talk about it and to hear who’s doing what about it. They are definitely interested in who wants to erase it.

But strange as it might seem to those over 40, climate change is just as important to many young voters.

That’s right. Young people in Pennsylvania are worried about whether they will have a planet to live on. Many of them don’t think global warming is a hoax. They believe their science teachers. They frown on Styrofoam and plastic straws. They’re going to vote with the scientists.

And there’s another issue high on their list: gun violence. They live with lockdowns and mass-shooter drills and the real threat of a gunman walking into their hallways. They’re impatient for solutions to a problem that has defined their childhoods.

Direct and without apology, some students asked the experts, “What do you think is the best solution to limit access to gun ownership in the U.S.?”

Many were still reeling from the fresh news of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, and they were thinking about what they faced when doors opened for a new school year only a few weeks away.

Several who had just turned 18 years old took the time to sign up to vote. And they seemed determined to do so in 2020.

Some of them contemplated taking it a step further and running for public office one day. The students heard from young people in both parties not much older than them who are candidates for public office. These young people weren’t just sitting around waiting for someone else to tackle the problems that seem to paralyze today’s lawmakers. They were ready to do something about them.

What’s their chief obstacle? Entrenched older folks who block their paths and think they’re too young to know anything, they said.

At least at the local level among the next generation of political leaders represented at the conference, there doesn’t seem to be the kind of political vitriol that separates Republicans and Democrats on the national stage.

The young Republicans and Democrats debating the issues at the conference seemed to like each other and to understand the difference between debate over ideas and respect for the person. They sure modeled dignity and decorum a whole lot better than many of their senior elected officials.

One other issue rose to the top of the list for the students at the Young Leaders Conference – immigration. Many of those at the conference were children of new immigrants, and some were born in other countries, themselves.

They felt lucky to be in the United States but apprehensive about what some perceive as growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

There was one young man from Quakertown who brought up the economy. But even his concerns were tied to college debt. His question: Will there will be a job waiting for him when he gets through high school and college? Will he get out of college with $40,000 in debt and an economy in the tank?

Many of these young leaders will be heading into the polls for the first time in 2020, focused on their own set of issues. But it won’t be long before the rest join them, setting a new agenda both nationally and in our region.

We’d better take notice now. It’s not just the economy, stupid. Today’s youth have a whole lot more on their minds than mere money.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

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