A New Advocate for Millennials

by Laura Weiss // Dec 19, 2017 Uncategorized

 

After the Affordable Care Act became law, Rachel Fleischer led enrollment and educational efforts at Planned Parenthood with the type of enthusiasm that caused co-workers to dub her “Miss Obamacare” and give her a sash bearing the superlative. Fleischer brought the sash along to a White House celebration for groups that helped spread the word about the law and showed Barack and Michelle Obama her “badge of honor.”

The 41-year-old Cherry Hill, N.J., native is bringing passion for the health care law to Young Invincibles, the advocacy group for 18- to 34-year-olds focused on working to boost economic opportunity, higher education and affordable, accessible health care for young adults. Described as a fierce fighter for policy objectives with a creative knack for finding and amplifying powerful stories, Fleischer recently took over as executive director, overseeing a roughly 50-person staff and offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Texas.

A handful of law students launched the organization in 2009 in response to concerns that young adults didn’t have a voice in the debate over health care legislation at the time. They gave it the name Young Invincibles, a term used to describe healthy young people who decide to forego health insurance because they feel indestructible.

It has since expanded to become a major advocate for young adults, who haven’t traditionally had a powerful voice in Washington. For decades young voters have had the lowest turnout rate among age groups in presidential elections, and their advocates are newer, paling in comparison to the heft and deep pockets of groups such as the AARP. Some signs do herald change: More youth advocacy groups are popping up and 18- to 29-year-olds were the only age group with a rising turnout rate from the 2012 to 2016 elections.

But the position of young adults, even as the economy recovers from a major recession, is challenging. Young Invincibles reports the millennial generation is struggling to gain the prosperity their parents had at the same age. Wages, net worth and homeownership rates are lower for millennials than baby boomers at the same age, and student loan debt is growing, recently surpassing $1.3 trillion. Millennials are more likely than past generations to live in their parents’ home, the Pew Research Center found. Some describe it as a dimming of the American Dream.

“We see that American promise is threatened today,” says Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, the chair of Future Forum, a group of young House Democrats working on issues facing millennials. For past generations, hard work could spur opportunity, but young adults need better pathways to afford higher education and earn more so they can save to start a family, buy a home or start a business, he says.

Young Invincibles is among the groups Swalwell enlists to help press Future Forum’s policy objectives. Fleischer’s group pushed for the health care law’s passage, including the popular provision that young adults can stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, and its defense remains among the group’s top policy goals. Nineteen- to 34-year-olds make up almost half of the Americans that gained insurance coverage between 2010, when Obamacare became law, and 2015, according to the Washington-based think tank the Urban Institute. But critics say young, healthy holdouts contribute to instability in the health care law’s marketplaces, pushing premiums higher and undercutting the goal of affordable care.

On health care, Young Invincibles typically aligns with goals on the left side of the aisle. It’s funded by groups including the Bill and Melinda Gates and Robert Wood Johnson foundations.

While millennials themselves don’t fund Young Invincibles, a recently-launched membership organization for young adults called the Association of Young Americans, says the groups have partnered and their ideals overlap. Young Invincibles says it works with lawmakers of all parties, and touts participation in Senate hearings led by Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington to stabilize the health care law’s individual insurance market.

In some cases, Young Invincibles chooses not to support legislation that could be a boon for young adults. It isn’t backing a Republican bill (HR 708) that would allow states to increase the limit on what older Americans can be charged for premiums compared to the youngest insured people in insurance markets, a change that nonpartisan RAND Corp. economists say would trigger a net rise in the number of Americans with insurance and, in particular, boost young people’s insured rates as their premiums shrink.

Young Invincibles believes older Americans shouldn’t lose insurance for younger people to gain coverage, and that increasing young adults’ tax credits would be a cheaper fix that wouldn’t harm other age groups.

On education, likewise, the group has focused on making higher education more affordable, but hasn’t embraced the free public college proposal that made independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont so popular among young voters in the 2016 presidential primaries.

Fleischer comes on board as the organization faces an administration and Congress it largely opposes on policy issues. It’s fought Republican efforts to repeal and replace the health care law, and it’s called on the GOP to scrap its tax overhaul.

It opposed provisions in the House tax bill (HR 1) that amend and lessen credits for higher education, eliminate a student loan tax deduction and make tuition waivers taxable income for some graduate students. And it’s against the Senate’s proposal to eliminate the requirement that everyone buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

Fleischer is no stranger to fighting uphill political battles after seven years at Planned Parenthood, which is under constant assault from Republicans who want to end its federal funding because it provides abortions.

“Every time the organization was attacked we turned out stronger, and I bring that same sort of mentality here. How are we going to get smarter, get more creative, more nimble, do more in the states, approach issues through a different frame to get more allies on board,” she says. “It’s going to force us to think a little different.”

Fleischer says 2016’s rise in young voter turnout is a hopeful sign that young people are rejecting complacency and more interested than ever in politics and activism. Young Invincibles founder Aaron Smith, the organization’s first executive director, predicts a boom in youth voting and campaigns for office, as well as activism, beginning in the recent wave of opposition to Trump.

Smith believes Fleischer, the group’s first outside pick for executive director, can boost millennials’ voices in politics by running the type of humanizing campaigns for which Planned Parenthood is known.

Former co-workers highlight Fleischer’s ability to connect with people and earn the trust it takes for them to share intensely personal stories, which Fleischer uses to get lawmakers’ attention and gain social media or news traction to promote policy objectives. She plans to use a favorite millennial tool — the internet — to bring more young adults into the fold and, eventually, to speak on a national stage.

Among the women Fleischer recruited as a Planned Parenthood patient advocate is Adeline Guyenne, a young mother who faced an unplanned pregnancy and credits the health clinic with her choice to keep the baby. Fleischer recruited Guyenne to tell her story, including a meeting with her senator, Democrat Kamala Harris of California, during a Planned Parenthood lobbying effort in Washington.  Guyenne, 30, left with a changed attitude toward her own political might.

A year ago Guyenne, like many millennials, felt apathetic about politics. She’d never voted. But six months ago, she founded the Venice Resistance, a Venice, Calif., nonprofit pressing for progressive policy change on a national and local scale whose first fundraiser benefited a local Planned Parenthood branch.

“Her dedication to the cause is very infectious,” Guyenne says of Fleischer. “I may have caught that bug.”

This story by Laura Weiss first appeared in the Dec 18 issue of CQ Magazine. If you would like to subscribe, please contact sales@cq.com or 202-650-6500.