Is This Where We Are, America?
I took out my first student loans more than 20 years ago. I had dropped out of college just before the start of my junior year. I took a couple of years off, and when I went back I had to pay for my final two years myself. I understood the responsibility I was assuming, but I was working minimum wage jobs at the time — retail, telemarketing, bartending. Repayment seemed like a vague, distant concept in large part because I could not fathom being able to repay such staggering amounts of money. I went to graduate school and got two more degrees, and though those programs were funded, I took out student loans because it was impossible to live on the meager stipends we were given.
One of those jobs I had as an undergrad the second time around was at a student loan company, processing loan consolidations. I saw applications from people who owed $15,000 and people who owed $400,000 and everything in between. I learned how expensive chiropractic and dental schools are. I spoke with a young woman who attended Brown and was working at Walmart and had $300,000 in loans and was desperate for help. Her monthly payment was more than she earned from her full-time job. But mostly, I learned the intricacies of the student loan system, the ways to repay and defer or forbear them, what it takes to pay them off, and how the system is designed to extract as much money as possible from people simply trying to get an education, trying to get the necessary credentials to prosper.
Every month, I pay $1,000 to the federal government. My balance has hovered around $140,000 for the past 10 years because most of each payment goes toward the interest. This is a common story, but this is not a sad story because I can afford to pay my loans. In another 15 years, whatever remains on the balance will be discharged, though I will have to pay income tax on the discharged amount. And still, my loans are always looming on the periphery of my life, influencing every fiscal decision I make.
Student loans are the kind of debt from which there is often no escape. They generally cannot be discharged by claiming bankruptcy. Deferment and forbearance periods are finite. If you default, the stain of it will follow you for quite a long time. The consequences can be devastating — wage garnishments, no tax refunds, whatever the government needs to do to get its money back — and your credit score can be destroyed.
Many progressive politicians feature student loan forgiveness as one of their key policy ideas because they understand how big a problem the student debt crisis is and what it will become without intervention. With Joe Biden as president, there is a distinct possibility that some form of student loan forgiveness might become a reality.
But the debate about the issue is contentious. It’s either a great idea or a terrible one. It’s a way of evening the playing field or it’s unfair to people who have paid off their student loans or who never borrowed or attended college. A great many Americans are concerned with fairness only when they think someone else might get something they won’t get. And they are seething with resentment as they imagine a country in which we help one another. It’s appalling, that this is where we are … that this is who we are.
No one benefits from everything our government does. I don’t have children, but some of the money I pay in taxes goes toward education. This serves the greater good and indirectly benefits me. We’re all paying for infrastructure we don’t personally need or use. It’s part of the social contract, but that contract holds up only when we are all willing to abide by its terms.
Much of the political division about student loan forgiveness can be explained by the fact that people want to benefit from the social contract without adhering to its terms. Or they care about the social contract only as it applies to the right kinds of people. And, of course, there is the bootstrap mentality — If I have achieved success, surely you can too — which is delusional at best. Then there are those who worship at the altar of personal responsibility: If you assume a debt, you must repay it. And worst of all, there’s the sufferance doctrine: If I have experienced hardship, you must experience hardship, too.
Damon Linker, a columnist for The Week, tweeted: “I think Dems are wildly underestimating the intensity of anger college loan cancellation is going to provoke. Those with college debt will be thrilled, of course. But lots and lots of people who didn’t go to college or who worked to pay off their debts? Gonna be bad.” This is what passes for political thinking these days — empty statements rising out of the notion that we have to govern from a place of fear about what might anger “lots and lots of people.”
Conventional wisdom seems to be that we must not trigger people by discussing radical ideas like universal health care, civil rights for the L.G.B.T.Q. community, reckoning with police violence and the carceral system, protecting women’s bodily autonomy, and, of course, student debt forgiveness. Somehow, compromise has come to mean not doing anything to upset anyone who is completely fine with ignoring the most urgent problems of our day.
Here’s the thing about anger. We seem to prioritize only one kind — anger in reaction to progress. And we never seem to acknowledge the anger rising out of oppression, marginalization, and under representation. The end of slavery and desegregation angered lots and lots of people, and so did taxation, suffrage, marriage equality. Progress angers people, but change is not the problem. The rage and resentment are.
People are struggling. The $1,200 stimulus checks have been spent. The additional $600 a week of unemployment funding has run its course. The Paycheck Protection Program has shut its doors. The economy continues to falter because we lack coherent federal leadership, and conditions will only worsen. We are on a precipice, as we have been before and will be again. A lot of political thinkers believe that now is the time for moderation, that we are in a boat that must not be rocked.
But now is not the time for half-measures. Now is the time for grand gestures and innovative thinking. Now is the time for remembering the social contract and recommitting to the idea of a unified country where we understand how intimately we are all connected. Now is the time for understanding that empathy is infinite if we allow it to be.
This country has to rise out of the bitter ashes of Donald Trump’s presidency. Student loan forgiveness won’t solve all the problems we are facing, but it will ease a significant burden for tens of millions of people. It will stimulate the lagging economy. And though not everyone will directly benefit, the country as a whole will improve. As a public, we owe a debt to one another — the debt of belonging to a community. It’s time that debt was paid.
Roxane Gay (@rgay) is a contributing Opinion writer.
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