I recently saw the new documentary about the life and times of children’s TV entertainer Fred Rogers (1928-2003), titled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Like a good millennial, I diligently watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the 1990s. His messages of goodwill, unconditional appreciation and love, and the overall warmth of his personality allowed Rogers and his joyful cast of puppets and actors in “Make-Believe” to enter our family room each week for a new episode, focused on such important matters as death and dying, stress and worry, conflict resolution and being true to ourselves when dealing with bullies and kids who didn’t play with us at recess.
As children, these were major issues in our lives, and we always appreciated Mr. Rogers’ nonpatronizing, sincere manner through which he told us how we could deal with our problems (and no doubt many parents and teachers appreciated a break from always having to be the ones to help us learn some of life’s hardest lessons).
But there is one issue that Mr. Rogers didn’t discuss with us: The question of what happens when we can’t afford to live in the kind of safe, clean neighborhood he and the residents of Make-Believe (and most of our baby boomer parents) took for granted.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, more millennial households are in poverty than households headed by any other generation, with approximately 5.3 million of the nearly 17 million U.S. households in poverty being headed by a millennial. Considering that only an estimated 28 million millennials in the U.S. were heads of households at the time the survey was done, that is a very significant number.
Compared to our parents’ generation just 30 years ago, we are more likely to be permanent renters and receive fewer career opportunities with significant raises in our prime working years. And those of us who are female are more likely to be single mothers than to be married or cohabiting while raising our children, who now cost a whopping 44 percent of our meager incomes to raise from birth until 18 years of age.
This distressing information cannot also be dismissed with an excuse of “that’s because they’re young and have no money because they just started working.” According to the New York Post, ever since the 2008 economic crash, over half of millennials aged 21-34 (52 percent at last report) feel their “personal financial situations” (read: high-interest student loan debt, health care costs, the astronomical cost of child care, rising transportation costs or some combination of these) will prevent them from making a down payment on a home within the next five years.
In addition, the very types of neighborhoods associated with Mr. Rogers’ one — places with low crime rates, good public transportation (let’s not forgot the Twin Cities was once home to one of the largest streetcar and trolley systems in the U.S.), clean and well-maintained roads and good public schools — are rapidly spiraling into a web of luxury that few of us can afford, rather than remaining the basic expectation of any long-term city resident.
The 1990s, with its bright pastel clothing, great alternative rock music, a booming economy and best of all, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” all conjure up nostalgia for an era when applying for a home mortgage loan did not mean having to mortgage one’s entire future earning capacity until one is old enough to retire.
However, as Mr. Rogers told us, we are all very special people, and I know my cohort is stronger than people from other generations give us credit for. As we begin gradually to overtake our parents’ generation in the workforce and in elected office, I am sure we will be able to turn Rogers’ Make-Believe neighborhood into our own reality.
But until that time comes, we must keep pressing forward on these issues and ensuring that we live in a world where we share, rather than squander, responsibility and opportunity for ourselves and for our families — just as Mr. Rogers would have wanted.
Jason Madore lives in Hopkins.