“This is far and away the strongest global economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime,” Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson declared recently during a visit to the headquarters of Fortune magazine.

Really? Strong for whom?

For young workers and students across the United States, the picture is not so rosy.

Workers in their 20s today are working multiple jobs and longer hours than the baby boomers did at that age. Basic living expenses are rising faster than paychecks.

According to data from the Department of Commerce, a typical male high school graduate in 1972 could expect to be earning just over $42,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Thirty years later, this same group was earning around $29,000.

Of course, these are the numbers for those young people who can find jobs. For millions of youth, the job search goes on — especially for Black, Latino and other minority youth. Even with a college degree, there is no guarantee of employment. Nearly a fifth of recent college graduates remain jobless.

Like declining wages and the lack of quality jobs, the health care crisis is also being felt by the young generation. The Economic Policy Institute reports that between 1979 and 2004 the number of recent high school graduates covered by employer-provided health insurance plummeted from just over 63 percent to 33.7 percent. For college graduates, the situation is a little better, but many are still stuck with low-quality coverage. Eighteen million young adults have no coverage at all. By all indicators, they are the largest group of uninsured.

Students, as well, are increasingly finding themselves up against the wall. One hurdle after another is placed before youth who are trying to make it through college. Skyrocketing tuition, shrinking financial aid, volatile loan rates and restrictions on immigrant students are all part of an ongoing assault on higher education.

Outstripping the general inflation rate, tuition rates have jumped an average of 35 percent nationally over just the last five years. For students at some colleges and universities, the increase has been as high as 95 percent to 100 percent since 2001. Many young people just cannot take on the financial burden required to get a degree. Those who do are stuck in a debt-for-diploma system that leaves them with tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding student loans.

Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled Congress sat on its hands for 12 years. Since the November 2006 elections, there has been greater movement on education legislation, but a lot of work remains to be done to push the House and Senate forward on these issues.

Part of the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization currently making its way through Congress would allow the Pell Grant to increase from its current $4,700 to $6,300 — by 2012! Because of the rapidly increasing tuition and fees at colleges and universities, the U.S. Student Association projects that in order for the Pell Grant to have the same purchasing power it had in the mid-’70s, it would have to increase to $9,000. While the HEA reauthorization will be a good step forward, it is obvious that many of its measures do not go far enough.

Of particular importance to immigrant students is the DREAM Act, which would grant some undocumented youth access to the same federal education aid that other students already have. Democratic Senators Harry Reid (Nev.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.) have pledged to push it forward.

For young workers, the recent increase in the minimum wage was a significant legislative victory. Another important piece of legislation is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would put all workers on a better footing to organize in their workplaces and fight for the kind of wages, pensions and health care plans that are being slashed by big business.

Further weakening the ultra-right in 2008 will make it possible to press for even more progressive legislation to benefit young workers and students. Many youth and student organizations, like the U.S. Student Association and the Young Communist League, are already gearing up for the fight ahead. It’s time to get down to work.

C.J. Atkins is a youth activist in Arkansas.