Thursday, July 8, 2010

Destroying The Educated American Family, One Member At A Time

This testimonial from a mother of two daughters illustrates the way in which medical problems can be devastating when people owe student loan debt. This particular family owes multiple debts (the mother has an BA and an MA, the daughters have degrees, as does the father), and further substantiates my argument that the student lending crisis is an inter-generational problem. Her words are a quiet protest of how this crisis is destroying the lives of good, hard-working, educated American families. I read this note shortly before I left for work and tried to stop crying on the way to school on the bus (I get stared at enough - tears would've made me more of a spectacle). I have included most of our correspondence below (names have been changed to protect the family's privacy).

So, this morning, I opening this email from Mrs. Q explaining her family's predicament:

Dear Cryn,

I admire you for all that you're doing regarding student debt.

Our story is probably not too different from most, but there are a couple of unique things I can tell you.

I have 2 daughters, Angela, 27 & Maria, 24. When Angie was 16 (after 4 other heart surgeries) she had a heart transplant .  .  . more unrelated surgeries for medical problems & last year a kidney transplant; Maria was the donor.

Now, after Angie had the heart transplant & gallbladder out, she went to community college with [her sister.] Because she missed so much time at school she was behind. She had her heart set on going to DePaul in Chicago & Maria went too. We had no reason to believe they would have difficulty getting jobs. Both majored in business & did well. They graduated in 2008 & had no job prospects. . . no calls on resumes. Then came the news that Angie was in end-stage renal failure. She was literally dying. . . again . . . in front of our eyes. Finally, April/2009, she received the much-needed kidney. As they recovered, they began looking for jobs again. Angie finally got a job in the fall of  '09, at a facility for mentally/physically disabled people, but not doing anything related to business & making very little money. Maria borrowed $2,000, got a nail tech license, & got a job almost immediately upon getting her license.

Problem is that they were out of work for so long & my husband lost his job due to illness & was also out of work for a year . . . I was supporting all of us. I filed bankruptcy due to medical bills & we went into foreclosure, which I got us out of . . . though not sure that was a great idea. Oh, yeah . . . I am a breast cancer survivor of 4 years . . . in the middle of everything, I had to go through chemo, radiation, & other treatments (lumpectomy was first).

I've tried negotiating with Direct Loans & they are of very little help. I can barely keep up with everything. We shouldn't have cell phones, but I need to be reachable for medical issues. There are so many things we've cut back on & it makes little or no difference.

It is so exhausting and frustrating because we are responsible people and want to meet our obligations. It has destroyed my faith in the educational system because they will take money from anyone & have no responsibility in guiding students into majors where they can find jobs.

I support you in your efforts and will do anything I can to help out.

Thanks for your time,

Mrs. Q

While I wouldn't say I'm hardened because of the thousands of stories I read from all the student loan debtors who've reached to me by now, I am certainly beyond the stage of crying in the way I used to last summer. But in this case, my sadness for this family got the best of me, and I was already in tears after reading the second paragraph. On top of that, I was angry as hell. For those individuals who accuse student loan debtors of being lazy or buying extravagant things, this woman is suggesting she shouldn't have a cell phone and justifying it because of her medical problems. For God sake's is owning a cell phone really such a luxury? I dare someone to tell me it is. Moreover, how is it people like this are struggling to make ends meet, and why isn't the Administration doing anything to help them? I'm really at a loss. I mean, are they just callous or too aloof from being enclosed by the friggin' beltway? Although I was running late to school (on my own schedule) and had to tend to a new pup, I wrote Mrs. Q back immediately. Here's what I said:

Dear Mrs. Q,

Many thanks for writing to me and sharing such personal things. I have to admit, I'm having a hard time responding right now, because your email stirred so many emotions within me. It saddens me to read that you and your family have been through such hardship, and it makes me more determined than ever to fight even harder for change.

It is understandable that you have lost faith in the education system in the U.S. As you know firsthand, it's caused your family nothing but heartache. But it's also disheartening that you have - I hold higher education in high regard, and do not think that obtaining degrees should come with such a heavy cost.

I won't give up fighting. You and your family deserve better, and it's a shame that the way in which higher education must be financed in the U.S. forces people like you to suffer.

Let me know if I may post your story.


Kind regards,

Mrs. Q responded immediately:


Thank you for taking time to read our story. I would love for you to post it . . . It is hard for me to reconcile my feelings about higher education, as I have both a bachelors & masters in speech/language pathology & have always thought that a college education was very important. Interestingly, though not at the time, we had a huge fight on our hands with the hospital, last year, because Angela was under-insured & they kept waffling about whether or not they would perform the transplant. Now she fights with the insurance to pay for the anti-rejection meds. We've gotten so many breaks, with her health, yet it is a constant fight to keep on top of jobs & still make ends meet.

If you need, I would love to help you fight for this very worthwhile cause. Please let me know anything I can do to help.


Mrs. Q

After reading this message and thinking about it during my breaks this evening (ironically, I am teaching a literature class and we're reading Grapes of Wrath), I kept asking myself over and over this evening: is this a fair and just America? Why are people like this being punished, and why is it nobody on the Hill or in the White House gives a damned? The questions returned again and again, and the intensity of their rhythm in my mind increased after viewing this great song clip with a montage of images from the 1920s and 1930s in class. It's the famous song, "Brother, can you spare me a dime?" (I encourage you to listen to it while reading this post, and then go back and watch it with the images)

I wish we could convince policy makers to help these people immediately. Drastic changes are needed. But I fear that I will fight this battle until the day I die, and I'm not sure how much progress I'll be able to make for people like Mrs. Q and her family. As one reader aptly stated, on my post entitled, "Can we get anything right for hard-working Americans? Anything?"

Ms. Johannsen, you are on the start of a multi-decade movement. Significant education reform will take at least one generation's efforts to achieve. It is on the scale of achieving womens' sufferage [sic].

Even the recent health care and student loan reform took decades to achieve. Just remember that you are running a marathon, not a dash.

For those who don't remember, student loans have been non-dischargeable debt since the 1970s. 

Luckily, I am healthy and young, so I'm more than prepared to fight this battle for the rest of my life. People like Mrs. Q and her family remind me of why we must not give up.


Demosthenes of America said...

The fact that there are so many stories like this is unconscionable to me. Once again, we are overflowing with "attorneys" but what can an attorney do? Represent them as an advocate against loan companies and debt collectors?

These are systemic, structural problems that can't be addressed on a case by case basis--what's needed is leadership and compassion from policymakers and our elected political leaders...but they have nothing but public scorn and spite for those on the receiving end of this "recession."

Cryn Johannsen said...

That's a great way of putting it, DoA. These are systemic and structural problems, and that's why I think they can be fixed. This situation is not something that's inevitable. There are ways in which these problems can be realigned to help current borrowers. If you read Grapes of Wrath, the way in which those who were fleeing the Midwest were treated and perceived is eerily similar. It's ludicrous. That's why the reader who made it clear that the battle has only begun is on to something. This fight is connected to racial injustice and the women's suffrage movement . . . people assume it's absurd and we're to blame, but the evidence against such fallacies is too noteworthy.

Demosthenes of America said...

Absolutely. Every moment is a conscious choice. These problems are made by people, they can be solved by people.

My grandfather and his entire family were "okies," the people who had to flee the dust bowl and search for work. There have been several fascinating books written by environmental historians that detail how the Dust Bowl was not an Act of God--but the eventual outcome of specific policies and cultural practices in farming and land use that led to the severity of the conditions in the Dust Bowl.

The situation with the economy and the debt burden is no different. For anyone in a decision-making capacity to attribute the current situation solely to moral failings or bad personal decisions on the part of borrowers is out of their mind.

Every social justice movement in history has started somewhere. Just because improvements have been made in a society's laws and/or habits does not mean the underlying causes of discrimination, racism, etc. vanish.

These problems CAN be solved for the better. All it takes is political will. Or as Teddy Roosevelt said, "Blood, toil, sweat and tears."

Cryn Johannsen said...

Well, I am a Kansan. My grandmother used to tell me what it was like to eat a chicken who had only eaten grasshoppers. These stories were powerful to me then and they remain so. You've made my day - we come from the same land. Land that was destroyed and taken over by capitalists (bankers and their destructive tractors). As we both know, this fate doesn't have to be inevitable. Your comments give me renewed hope.

Cryn Johannsen said...

Your description about current debtors and it being their own failings is superb, DoA. Many thanks.

-Cryn from Sleepless Seoul (b/c of a new pup)

Demosthenes of America said...

Well thank you for the comments, but it's gotten to the point where, to quote Will Ferrell in Zoolander, "Doesn't anybody see this?! I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"

Millions of Americans, many for the first time, have done everything they were supposed to do to "succeed" or "make it" or "provide for themselves and their children's futures" but somehow find themselves worse off then ever before. This is not the result of their misguided efforts or bad decisions but how our system rewards/allocates resources.

The recent episode where elected officials described their fellow unemployed citizens, and they are our neighbors, friends, citizens who share a common bond of self-government, with derogatory and pejorative phrases like "lazy" and "drug users" should have been removed from their positions immediately. They would never dare try that with a soldier because they know better (at least from a PR perspective).

Every time I hear someone say "popular opinion never leads to actual change," my mind, for some odd reason, automatically thinks of the incident many years ago when CNN broadcast a story about contracting port security to a Middle-East based company. Literally overnight, the vox populi reached such a level that it was rescinded and everyone was dancing to placate. There is absolutely no reason why it couldn't happen again or happen for something that truly mattered.

Knut said...

Strangely, I'm also reading The Grapes of Wrath at the moment.

The term "medical bankruptcy" should be relegated to the history books.

So should "student loans."

I hope everyone here understands that it doesn't have to be this way.

This is our fight.

Anonymous said...

You’re doing great work here. Don’t give in to that “multi-decade” “marathon” mentality. We’re the “on-demand” generation and can achieve results much sooner. Look how fast we can communicate around the world.

You’ve made the argument, and the emotional stories will create sympathy. However, if we expect to make any real progress, we have to come up with solutions. Here are my suggestions: (1) make student loan repayments contingent on income with the schools (not the taxpayers) taking the loss (this will create an incentive for schools to find reasonable employment for their graduates and/or limit enrollment in "worthless" programs), (2) start suing and revoking licenses/aid for schools that mislead or can't place graduates in suitable employment, (3) allow student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy after a specified time (e.g. 5 years after graduation) or number of unsuccessful legitimate attempts to gain suitable employment (why should you have to pay for something that you can't use and is thus defective?), (4) pass legislation prohibiting employment discrimination based on being educated or “overqualified,” (5) get organized and threaten to flee the country if some form of relief isn’t provided (if significant numbers leave, how many workers will be left to pay into Medicare and SS?) and (6) update the “Brother, can you spare a dime?” song for the Great Recession (e.g., “Obama, can you spare some change?”)

Frank the Underemployed Professional said...

These stories are just more anecdotal evidence that our nation needs real socialized medicine. Every other first world nation has it.

Our health care system is the most expensive and inefficient in the world, consuming a whopping 17% of GDP while leaving tens of millions of Americans uninsured or under-insured with tens of millions more living in sheer terror of losing their jobs and/or health coverage. We also have hundreds of thousands of medical bankruptcies every year. Also, our current system places a tremendous burden on businesses.

In contrast, nations with socialized medicine spend a far smaller percentage of their GDP on health care, have 100% coverage, have a more content populace, have almost no medical bankruptcies, and often have the same or more doctors per capita. Their businesses don't have to worry about health insurance benefit concerns. (However, they have far fewer wealthy insurance and for-profit hospital executives. I know, it's tragic.)

All of my personal experiences over the past decade have transformed me from an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism into an advocate of a mixed economy. Sadly, free market dogma and fear of socialism is so deeply-ingrained in this country that market forces will have to impoverish tens of millions more Americans first before the masses have the political will and desire to overhaul the structure of the nation's economy.

Anonymous said...

@ Mrs. Q
Thank you for your courage and gracious generosity. Be most well and at peace as there is movement on our issue!
May this be of comfort:

"When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always."~Mohandas K. Gandhi
Love & gratitude,

Spekkio said...

@Anonymous 08 July:

I definitely appreciate your pragmatic approach. That said, I would suggest that your idea re: "worthless" degrees and income could use some fine-tuning. The trouble I have is that, sadly, incomes are based upon the irrationality of the so-called "free market." As such, work that we know to be valuable - teaching, librarianship, research, the arts - might end up hurt under your proposal as it stands.

Anonymous said...

can we please talk about compound interest.

how is it student aid when it increases exponentially?

all this new legislation making sure private loans are out of the mix like federal loans are the saviors. . .having our lives owned by the fed for over 25 yrs is not the joy ride they make it out to be. . .

when is enough? 4x the loan?. . 10x the loan? at 8% interest. . .we have told our college age honors student kids 'we will not co-sign student loans we are still in hell from our own'.

Bill Weikart said...

As a co-founder of SAP (Students Against Privilege), as well as a student of Civil Rights, I know that education matters in every recorded historical civilization. SAP believes that education is an important right for the masses if democracy is going to function for all groups, if the statement liberty and justice for all is actually beyond a rhetoric and an actual goal for the U.S. Free education for the public enables all classes to participate in the improvements in all industries, government, social conditions, and real democracy. How can an uneducated population make wise decisions when they don't have access to accurate information about, not only the present, but our history, as well. History is our society's memory and without access to that history, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. With access to that history, we can see what has been successful historical policies and apply them to the present.

Anonymous said...

There is no reason for college to take four years. In England, university is a three-year program.

Many college-bound kids are in rotten high schools and are bored to death. Some of them are also scared to death of their classmates. The GED should be available to anyone, of any age. A fourteen-year-old who passes the GED should be able to enroll in college at that point, and the money that would have gone to the public school district to educate him should be applied to his college expenses.

More college classes should be offered for little or nothing on the internet. The best professors' classes should be on DVD, and available at the library. There is no reason why an undergraduate degree in history or a graduate degree in law should not be obtainable by self-study.

Cryn Johannsen said...

You raise some valid points, Anonymous. However, I disagree with several of your comments. It is pedagogically critical that people earn degrees in the classroom. While I don't have problems with doing some courses online, I think there's a reason for having teachers and students interacting face-to-face. Moreover, you're not just learning from your instructor, but from the collaborative exchange with your peers. That's lost if you're sitting at your computer in - say - the confines of your home.

Anonymous said...

While I am sympathetic to the situation where individuals are saddled with large student loans and medical bills, I am concerned about where the conversation is going. If schools have an obligation to find jobs for all their graduates, will they not just educate fewer students? If you have a right to a job, who will be forced to give you that job? I fear that our society is becoming one of entitlement without enough responsibility -- too much of the thinking that society should take care of the citizens and not enough of us taking care of our society.

John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but for what you can do for your country."

Government is not always the answer. And where do you think the Government gets its money? From YOU or someone just like you! The Government can't take care of you unless it takes that money from someone else, and it can't take care of someone else unless it takes the money from you.

Cryn Johannsen said...

I'm doing just what JFK demanded - that's why I"m an advocate for people. I fully understand where the Government gets its money, and that's why they shouldn't SUBSIDIZE corporations and give them tax breaks. We, the people, are the Government, and that's why we need to think of how it can help us SOLVE problems such as the student lending crisis.

Anonymous said...

I have a defaulted student loan. In the early years after the default, some money was paid voluntarily and some money was captured from tax returns. At present there is no evidence that any of the money paid ever did any more than cover penalties. Somebody needs to follow the money and see who is being enriched in this whole disgusting process. I suspect that the debt collectors are enjoying their profits. I suspect that they are not alone.

Anonymous said...

Ya know, after reading all the posts you've made from people who have written in to you, this last one just made something click in my head. (you did say it too Cryn, I'm just going to expand a bit.) Every single one of them says they feel ...bad for having things like cell phones, computers, cameras, food, or a place to live. They are guilty b/c they spent money on something other than a student loan or other bills.

I'm not going to lie, I used to be the same exact way. If I was late, or couldn't make a payment in my head my brain told me "way to go failure, how are you going to catch up this time?" or "Seriously Michele, your parents didn't raise you to be a faliure." And then one day, probably the same day I put my dreads in, I went "fuck it." Yeah that's right; FUCK. IT.

I know that people get badgered about the morality of paying off loans. (Trust me, I get calls on my house phone about every 3 hours that I don't pick up anymore.) And I know it seems like we don't become successful when we can't send a bill in the mail. But is this what life is really about? Are we meant to get up and go to a job (or 4) ONLY to be able to pay off some fucking bills and create a credit score? How exciting is that! I can't wait!

So I started ignoring them. If there was something I wanted I got it. If there were places I wanted to be I went. Those bills, they can wait man. They will be there until I die and there is nothing I can do about it. So why should I torture myself with worry and self-depreciation during the time I have left? The only effort I put forth now is to make sure my co-signer does not get hurt. He is of a different generation and my thoughts do nothing to the way he was raised. The least I can do as his daughter is not ruin his life like I did mine.

P.S. What's the difference between a one dollar bill, and a one hundred dollar bill? It's just paper... Is money useful? Maybe. But recently I've learned bartering and the connections I make are much more rewarding.