Boomerang Disconnect

By George Leposky

Spouse Rosalie recently telephoned the local office of our Congressperson, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), to express the view that the federal tax laws should assist parents of adult children who return home to live – the Boomerang Generation.

Eduardo Casal, an intern in Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s office, took the call. He spelled Rosalie’s name “Rosely” but summarized accurately her concern: “Parents that have to support their children after college and pay for their expenses should receive tax deduction and relief.”

Somewhere between Casal’s written summary and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s signature, the message got garbled. “Thank you,” she wrote, “for calling my office to express your opinion on tax relief for parents of college students.”

This exchange illustrates the extent to which officialdom has failed to acknowledge and respond to the growing trend toward boomerang adult children. Jobs with a living wage and staying power are hard to find, especially in the high-tech industries, and especially this year with the dot-com world in disarray. The costs of housing, and of owning and operating a car, are relatively higher than in previous decades. Moreover, today’s young adults must struggle with unprecedented levels of student loan obligations and credit-card debt.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 18 million adults between the ages of 18 and 34 live with their parents, a 44 percent increase since 1970. Such statistics reflect a phenomenon we see all around us, mirroring our own family’s experience.

Options Circumscribed

Our daughter earned a Bachelor of Science degree in media production from Florida State University in 1998, then moved to California for an internship that she hoped would be the springboard to an illustrious career. When the internship ended, she stayed on in Los Angeles, alternating between unemployment and underemployment. She had a tiny but charming studio apartment in Koreatown, in a 90-year-old building where silent-screen siren Clara Bow once lived, but she couldn’t pay the rent without subsidies from her parents and grandparents.

After almost two years of dismay, she moved back to the ancestral abode in Miami. Here, amidst her own local network of Florida-schooled professionals, she is having better success – but not enough, so far, to afford her own apartment. She runs a production company out of her bedroom and, as needed, the rest of our house.

Meanwhile, we are preparing to warehouse most of the worldly goods of our son, who will depart in mid-September for a year to study and teach art in Turkey. He is going abroad as an alternative to the limited U.S. job market for college graduates with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He will spend two weeks with us, during which he will build shelves in our garage and fill them with his stuff. Then he will fly away into the rising sun.

When Rosalie and I were empty-nesters several years ago, we briefly considered selling our family-sized house and buying a smaller, more economical dwelling. We looked, didn’t like what we saw, and stayed put. Thus, fortuitously, we still have the space to assist our daughter and son, but as boomerangs they circumscribe our options.

They and their possessions are less portable now than when they were small children. They have anchored us more firmly in place than we want to be, even though we’re not trying to kick off the traces and make major lifestyle changes anytime soon. Relocating for any reason (such as a new job, if one suddenly should beckon me) would entail major moving and storage costs to accommodate our son’s possessions, and would either abandon or uproot our daughter and her budding career.

Federal Issues

I don’t expect Uncle Sam to solve these problems of life-choice options and logistics, but help with the financial costs of having a boomerang in the family would be nice. Here are some of the issues Rosalie and I wish the President and Congress would address:

            · A dependent deduction for parents of boomerangs. Under current income-tax law, a child stops being a dependent at age 19 (or age 24 if he or she is a full-time student for at least five months of the year). Extending dependency deductions to parents of adult children over the age of 24 who live at home and earn too little to afford independent living would be worthwhile.

            · Provisions for low-cost health insurance for boomerangs. Our daughter lost her coverage under my employer’s health-insurance plan when she turned 24. She had a student health-insurance program at school, but it ended with graduation. As a freelance media-production assistant or a self-employed producer, she doesn’t qualify for health insurance as anyone’s employee, and she can’t afford individual coverage.

            · Broader access to unemployment benefits for younger workers. An employee must have worked for an employer a certain number of weeks to become eligible for unemployment insurance after the job ends. In some professions, including our daughter’s, few entry-level jobs last that long.

· Redefining the distinction between employee and independent contractor. Employees who stay on a job long enough are eligible for unemployment insurance; independent contractors aren’t. Employees get benefits; independent contractors generally don’t. Employers contribute to FICA (Social Security tax) for employees; independent contractors pay the higher self-employment rate. Being an independent contractor offers some enticing tax benefits to people who earn enough money to benefit from them. In the lower-income realm, the liabilities and exclusions typically outweigh the benefits.

A Question of Social Policy

In part, the growth of the Boomerang Generation is a consequence of oversold expectations. We tell children to get an education as a prelude to professional and financial success, pointing them toward careers with too few available jobs and/or jobs that pay too little. Something must be wrong with a society that pays garbage collectors more than schoolteachers.

This is not a Democrat or Republican problem; it’s a social problem. It seems to be growing in scale and complexity no matter who minds the store in Washington – and nobody gives it the attention it deserves. Certainly boomerang issues belong within the scope of the on-going discussion over government’s role in promoting family values. This is a theme Rep. Ros-Lehtinen could pursue to good effect as part of her own family-centered agenda. Maybe she will read this article and discover the opportunity Rosalie tried to suggest to her.

George Leposky is editor and co-owner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

© Ampersand Communications