Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Geopolitics of Student Loan Debt

What are the contributing factors of the student loan debt crisis that make it a geopolitical issue?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Strike Debt: To Whom Are We Indebted?

Strike Debt, a movement that grew out of Occupy Wall Street in NYC in 2012, and organized itself around all forms of debt, drafted a manual titled The Debt Resisters' Operations Manual. This manual "reveals how the predatory debt system works to increase inequality, undermine democracy, and ruin lives. It provides detailed strategies for fighting common forms of debt and lays out an expansive vision for a societal movement of debt resistance." It is well worth reading, as it was written by numerous experts and is enormously comprehensive in its scope.

Strike Debt has been highly effective in its efforts to achieve its mission in debt resistance. Those involved continue to make tremendous strides, and I am personally honored that they cited me in their manual.

In the introduction to the manual, an interesting question is raised: "To Whom Are We Indebted?" It is here in which the authors outline the structural forms of our debt system in the US as well as globally. While acknowledging how it certainly affects individuals, and pointing out how society tends to place blame solely on the individuals who take on the debt, the discussion addresses the systemic ways in which debt divides those with power and those without it (this section even discusses the destabilizing role it plays in our most intimate relationships, i.e. how it divides us). Indeed, debt has the power to destroy our most intimate relationships, as many debtors have shared with me here in past testimonials. Furthermore, the creators of the manual are also highly aware of the fact that debt - as I have said many times here - creates a collective bond between all debtors, but at the same time the manual notes how debt plays a different role in the lives of women, people of color, as well as queer and trans folks. In a word, intersectionality is a key thread in the manual's analysis.

While the question of to whom are we indebted can be answered with notable negative responses, the writers of the manual also remind us of the positive aspects of indebtedness. For instance, authors, in the acknowledgments section of a book, will oftentimes write something like, "I am indebted to my wife or my husband or colleague(s) and without their support, the creation of this work never would have been possible."

Naturally, this got me thinking about the people to whom I am indebted, the people who care about my well-being, who want me to succeed, who are there for me even when I doubt everything about my abilities. There are a lot of people to whom I am indebted, one person in particular I am thinking about right now (he saved my life in fact), but those details are included in the Introduction to my forthcoming book.

To Whom Are You Indebted? You can answer this in the affirmative, negative, or both. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Suicidal Debtors: When Hope Is Restored

I receive a lot of suicidal notes from student loan debtors. In fact, I have received so many since 2010, when I posted that simple question (Have you thought about it?), that I eventually received a grant from the Economic Hardship and Reporting Project to write an article about the topic. I have also been cited in numerous scholarly works as a result of my work on the relationship between suicide and student loan debt.

Not all the notes are posted online, some of them land in my inbox.

For instance, in May of 2014, I received the following email from a desperate debtor and war veteran:

Hi, I came across a website tonight that talked about student loan debt and suicide. I am a military veteran and also a person who completed a master's degree in 2012. Since getting my masters degree, I have really struggled with many things. Some of my struggles are related to ptsd from my military service in Iraq but I have found recently my real stress comes from not being able to find a job that pays me a wage that will empower. 

Furthermore, I have been divorced since I came back from Iraq, I was not the same person who went over there. I have been unstable with jobs since then and the jobs I did have I have not been able to make a decent living as I have been in and out of homelessness. In fact, I am writing this email while lying on the floor in the living room of my ex-wife house. :-(

I write this email to you just to say I enjoyed reading your post on that website about student loan debt and suicide. I think  about suicide given my situation. I feel I have nothing anymore and no one loves me. I am alone everyday in my thoughts and physically. I often feel hopeless, but yet have so many dreams and desires about the career I want to work in after having received  my masters degree....

I do not know why I am really sending this email to you. I guess because you mentioned in the comment section to another person who was thinking of suicide that they could email you to discuss things or their thoughts. You seem like a real supportive person and I liked reading  your post on that website.

I do not know if you will even get this email since the post I was reading from you were from back in 2011. I hope my email finds you well. I wish I knew you and had you as a friend. In your written words you seem very understanding and have desire to help. For this, I want to keep pushing forward and not end my life.... However, the pain I have and the depression are still there.

Thank you for being there.

I immediately responded to this individual and told him to seek help. Luckily, he replied the next day and told me he took my advice and did find a doctor for his depression and suicidal thoughts. We stayed in touch, and he sent me a follow-up about his situation somewhat recently. Things are far better for this man, something to keep in mind for those of you who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. 

Here are excerpts from a recent email he sent to me [I have not edited anything but have redacted a few things to protect this individual's identity]: 

Hi Cryn,

Thank you for contacting me earlier today. Where should I begin.... A lot of things have changed in my life since that rough night and time period I was enduring when I sent you my initial email. I can't thank you enough for letting me tell you how I was feeling. You were never judgmental and although you were not near me, I felt comfortable to send my message to you. When you gave me encouragement to keep on going and to seek help though the VA, I felt like someone really cared about me and did not want me to take my own life. Even though you were a stranger who I never met, I felt I had a friend in you who cared about my well-being. Up until that point, I felt very alone and had no one in my life I could talk to. I can't thank you enough! If you are ever in Phoenix, AZ, can I meet you in person? I want to hug you. I also want to be your friend, and I consider you my friend. You seem like an amazing woman.  I love how you write. I want to write good too.  You have inspired me to become better. 

Well, I currently have a job and it is going great! I am a Criminal Intelligence Analyst [. . .] What I love most about my job, is it has put me back on the map in a career field that relates to the college education I worked so hard to get and also my past work experience in law enforcement and the military. I enjoy my work and actually excited to go into work. I have not had this feeling in a very long time.

Once I was hired into my present job, I feel it really helped boost my self esteem. Suddenly I did not feel as hopeless as I had prior to being hired. Finally someone gave me a chance. 

I have been receiving treatments for combat service related PTSD at the Phoenix VA Medical Center and it has helped. At least I am not in that dark place I once was in and I am no longer homeless. My goals appear to be in reach once again. 

As for my student loan debt, it is an insane amount I owe the government. Since I have only federal loans, I have requested to enrolled in the income based repayment plan. I am still waiting to hear if I have been enrolled or not. The positive for this is my payments will hopefully be more manageable so I can continue to afford to live and not end up homeless again. My only hope now is to work in public service which I think my job qualifies and work for 10 years and the loans will be forgiven according to a law signed by the President Obama. I am going to try and pursue this because it will be my only hope to have these loans go away. However, I still feel under employed with a masters degree. My masters degree still cost me more than the annual salary I am currently making at my job. I wish the government would do employment market studies on every college degree in the U.S. and determine the employment possibility and what types of jobs are possible for each college major.This information could be used by the government to determine how much student loan amounts they will give to say a criminal justice major based on the amount of jobs available and the amount of salary that can be earned in career fields related to that degree program, which would also determine the students ability to pay the loan back if hired in a related career filed.. If this occurred, maybe student loan debt would not rise so high. If the government would only give so much in loan money depending on a certain degree and the employment and salary prospects for jobs related to that degree, then colleges and universities would have to reduce cost and charge tuition for each major individually based on what the government would lend a student to study. This would solve to problem let s say... XYZ University charges $25K a year for a bachelors degree no matter what your major. It is a blanket dollar amount currently If student loan amounts and borrowing more controlled as I explained above, an Art History major may be able to obtain that degree for little of nothing compared to an electrical engineering degree.  If the government did not lend out loans the way the system currently stands, then colleges and universities would have to curb tuition hikes or have no students.  Just my thought with this debt crisis. I wish I were important enough or had money to get someone in Congress to listen to me and present this idea.. lol

Even with all of my loan debt currently from graduate school, I no longer think about taking my life over it. I don't want to make a permanent decision to a temporary problem. I am going to live my life for the time I have here on Earth whether I have the student debt or I am able to get it paid off or forgiven. 

I have been telling myself this: Things may be rough right now, but there have been some positive changes in my life. At times, it all may seem overwhelming and I get depressed in those moments, but these struggles are not the end of my story. I may be struggling now, bu this is not how my story is going to end. I still have goals and ambition to really be someone and establish myself as a professional. 

Some of these stories have good endings, such as this one. (Some of them, however, do not have good endings, one of which I will share in my book).

Which means, if you are feeling suicidal, please reach out to someone you trust in your immediate circle. Find professional help in your area (many therapists offer services on a sliding scale), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline below:

1 (800) 273-8255

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hope and Suicidal Debtors

Unfortunately, I have learned some dark news about a debtor, one who did not make it - I presume he never knew about this page and the stories shared here by suicidal debtors. On the other hand, another suicidal debtor reached out to me almost a year ago, and I wrote to him and urged him to seek medial help immediately. That story has a good ending, and one that I'll be sharing with all of you shortly. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Testimonials from Debtors Who Have Fled the U.S.: "I am a US expat who is 'a student loan debt fugitive'"

As I have in the past, I threw out a basic question last week: who has fled the US as a result of their student loan debt?   I also asked the exact same question a few years ago - 2012 to be precise - and received a number of responses. Moreover, in 2011, I wrote an article for USA Today titled, "Unemployed, educated, and indebted: More Millennials seeking work outside the U.S."  So it is clear, the topic is not a new one for me. Interestingly, this particular topic intersects with individuals who have high levels of medical debt, something that interests me greatly and something I am keenly aware of, despite what adversaries may claim either here or elsewhere. In any event, I want to share a recent comment from one person who decided to flee the U.S. 

There is a growing group of debtors who have left. That is clear. I knew them in South Korea when I lived there in 2010. That isn't the only place they go. While the debtors I knew there hadn't defaulted, I think it is safe to say that they fled as a result of their student loan debt. Plus, the economy was in the tank, so they needed to find work in order to service their student loan debts (Ah, yes! America, a place where you get an education in order to service debt so that some guy can own a lot of Maseratis and numerous homes in the Hamptons and elsewhere, while millions of folks remain indebted for life. That's the American dream).

Anyway, there is another group of debtors who have chosen to default on their loans and apparently flee indefinitely. One of them, who wrote a comment, and which I share his remarks below, calls himself a "student loan debt fugitive."

Here's what he had to say:

I am a US expat who is a 'student loan debt fugitive.' There are many of us here in the EU. 
If anyone wants the full text of what I typed. let [sic] me know your email or something. but here is a small piece of my total comment:

I am living outside the country with US student debt. I won't bore you all with my story, but the end game is I cannot possibly pay it back. Even if I were to enter IBR the amount forgiven would be equal to hitting the lottery and having to pay taxes on that amount would be insurmountable. In my not always humble opinion IBR is a political scam to basically kick the can down the road without actually forgiving debt. What it does is turn a civil debt into a criminal tax liability. 

Anyway, it is pretty obvious I am in default. I graduated 3 years ago and my roughly monthly net pay was not going to pay my medical school loan. I attempted to contact my creditors and work out a plan and both the federal and private lenders basically told me I could get a short term relief, but there was no solution for more than a year. They also straight out told me they had absolutely no incentive to negotiate because 'they would get their money one way or another.'

The country I am in does discharge student loans in bankruptcy. In fact, a judge can declare you bankrupt on the spot. My estimated monthly student loan payment is more than 3 times a doctor's gross salary here.

No court here would accept the amounts and penalties the US imposes. In fact, the law here has its own ideas what is an acceptable penalty and they do not include collection or attorney fees. The interest is modest at 6%. So when my creditors called I simply said 'sue me!' (I may have mentioned that any lawsuit must be in the native language and filled out in the requirements of the local law.) The reality is nobody in their right mind from the US would sue me here. They would pay enormous fees for translation and local legal aid, to watch me be declared insolvent on the first court appearance. The statute of limitations for suing over debt here is 3 years anyway, so in a few months I could just claim that.

I actually encourage people, if you can't pay your US student loans, pack up and move. I think it is foolish not to. Sometimes I feel bad about not being able to pay the money back, but I suspect just like homesickness, it will fade with time.

I know that lenders, the government, or private, have absolutely no remorse about any immorality they subject me or my family to. They created laws to benefit them. I moved somewhere that the laws benefit me. They are more than welcome to call and negotiate a reasonable settlement. But I suspect they really just don't want to bother. Neither of us has any incentive to give concessions to the other. I keep hearing that my life would be destroyed if I moved back to the US. But honestly... Move back to what? Difficulty renting a place to live? Difficulty getting a job because of student loan default? Pay garnishments? Shame? Not getting my drivers' license renewed? Not being able to have a professional license? Harassed non-stop by creditors? Give up my legal advantage? A lower quality of life and more expenses for my family? 

That is insanity. Why would anyone go back to that?