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Five Ways Young Americans Can Fight Back Against Student Loan Debt | The Nation

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Five Ways Young Americans Can Fight Back Against Student Loan Debt

This article was originally published by Alternet and is re-posted here with the permission of the author.

I’m going to come out to you. I am overburdened by student loan debt. Since graduating at the height of the financial downturn with a degree that isn’t easily applicable to an ever-competitive job market, I’ve been stuffing my loan statements in a box under my bed. The only reason I feel empowered to say this to an audience is because I’ve found out that I’m not alone. In fact, there are 206,000 of us who graduated in 2008 with at least $40,000 in student loan debt. Student loan debt exceeded credit card debt for the first time in 2010, and according to the debt clock that keeps ticking away, we’re only $60 million shy of the oft-cited $1 trillion mark.

The dismal anecdotes of youth in this country have been reported on this site. Even Mayor Bloomberg acknowledged that something should be done for these hopeless young people before we take to the street to riot. 

Remember Mohammed Bouazizi? So much has happened since this 26-year-old Tunisian food vendor set himself on fire in front of a local municipal office. The rest is a tumultuous recent history of riots, protests, tent cities and overall acting out in the Middle East, collectively referred to as the Arab Spring. Though Bouazizi wasn’t a college student, as reported in much of the narrative, his desperation in the face of police brutality and unemployment in a society that was blind to his community’s struggle mirrors ours. Bouazizi set himself ablaze in order to be seen. 

I hearken back to this story, not because I’m advocating a repeat of this scene, or because with police violence and retaliation against the #OccupyWallStreet protesters, it seems like we’re heading for the same violent crescendo as our Middle Eastern counterparts. But in a profile of the boy behind the legend, Bouazizi's mother spoke to the humiliation that her son felt—his lack of control over the course of his own life. In order to regain control, he took his life. With mounting bills, disappearing jobs, and a deaf, dumb and blind government, the time is ripe for a similar spark and resulting uprising here in the US.

But it probably won’t happen—or at least not in the same way. Clinical psychologist Bruce Levine wrote on this site that “Young Americans...appear to have acquiesced to the idea that the corporatocracy can completely screw them and that they are helpless to do anything about it.” He succinctly articulated the weights that hold young Americans back; what keeps us from rallying to the streets in sustained, significant protest.

In my talks with Levine, he seemed much more hopeful about the potential of youth to overcome these barriers. He acknowledged that the insidious forces that keep us from the streets were established by his generation, and said to me and all youth that firstly, “we must do something to get you out of your pain.” He started me off with a few solutions. Here they are for your viewing, debating and (hopefully) implementing pleasure. 

1. Student Loans—The Personal

Large debt—and the fear it creates—is a pacifying force,” says Levine. Student loans have been in the spotlight recently. In 2009, Robert Applebaum posted a Facebook note calling for student loan forgiveness as a direct means of economic stimulus. “Responsible people who did nothing other than pursue a higher education would have hundreds, if not thousands of extra dollars per month to spend, fueling the economy now,” he wrote. Since then, a burgeoning collective movement has formed and our individual grinding and knashing of teeth over our monthly bills has been poured into a focused group building. His “Forgive Student Loans” petition reached 300,000 before it went to MoveOn.org and is currently moving its way up to 400,000.

But for a graduate in pain, this is small relief. What’s holding you back won’t immediately be fixed by a petition or even legislation. Connecting your personal struggle to the overall political battle is the key to moving this along. In the meantime, here are some things to know and do for personal relief from student debt pain.

  • The student lending system, like its house-lending cousin, is an intentionally confusing process with lots of opportunity for hijinks and malfeasance on the part of collection agencies. If you are confused about who owns your loan, your current standing or any other issues, the Office of the Ombudsman at the Department of Education can be helpful in tracking the life of your federal loan(s). They even give advice about dealing with lenders, default, fraud and bankruptcy.

  • The Institute for College Access and Success has initiated the Project on Student Debt, which Applebaum also works with. Although you can’t contact the project directly with your personal woes, it has great resources—whether you’re applying to college, in college or a graduate—to assist you and do great political work around consumer protection rights for student loan borrowers.  

  • Did you know you could qualify for Income Based Repayment (IBR) and loan consolidation even if you’re in default? Programs like IBR and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) are under-publicized options that can immediately take off some of the student loan burden (watch the demo on IBRinfo.org). The great thing about IBR is that after paying based on your income for 25 years (or 10 years for public service employees), the rest of your loan is forgiven. Though not a perfect system (the “forgiven” amount is still taxable income) IBR could reduce your monthly payments significantly.  

  • Generally, be open and honest about your situation. Talk to your loan holder(s) and ask questions about your options. If someone is rude, or excessively demanding, report them. To learn more about dealing with collection agents, go to the Federal Trade Commission website’s Facts for Consumers. Form support groups with young and old at varying stages of the college game. Share resources and stories and help each other without judgment.

2. Student Loans—The Political

Now that you feel a bit more secure in your situation, it’s time to motivate and advocate for the end of what Levine calls “student loan indentureship.” If you’re not convinced that this is a growing national crisis wrought with the same inequalities that precipitated the housing crisis, here are a few factoids: The corruption reaches all the way to the top, with Speaker of the House John Boehner being the recipient of the most contributions from the student loan industry.

College tuition rates enjoy steady growth even as employment opportunities for recent grads decrease. The DOE reports that 8.8 percent of student borrowers are defaulting, and those numbers are increasing. Both private and federal student loans were stripped of bankruptcy protection. That means borrowers don’t get the basic consumer protections those who incur gambling debt receive. Wages can be garnished without a court order, unlike every other situation where a court order is mandatory. Almost any provision that would protect borrowers, the latest being the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has been attacked and dismantled by our corporate-friendly Congress.

If you don’t want to advocate for student loan forgiveness, at least agree that student loan borrowers deserve the same consumer protections enjoyed by every other industry.

In that vein, support these platforms. As a lawyer, Applebaum acknowledged that the reason for asking for such an extreme provision as nation-wide loan forgiveness is so we could achieve basic protections—a "shoot for the moon, but at least reach the stars" situation. “I recognize that the political reality is not in my favor,” he told me, “but I started the national conversation and that is more important.” Sign the petition and support Rep. Hansen Clarke’s resolution to forgive student loans. Connect with student groups doing work around tuition hikes and student debt (more on that in #4).

3. Drugs

Young people indulge in all types of substances to get away from their pain—none more pervasive and dangerous than those prescribed to us by medical professionals. "Just as people themselves can abuse drugs, abusers can use drugs to abuse and break people,” Levine writes in Get Up, Stand Up! He continues, “Saul Alinsky, the legendary organizer and author of Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, would today certainly be diagnosed with ODD and other disruptive disorders.”

After the movements of the '60s and '70s, corporate interest used two main industries to control and suppress future rebellions: higher education and the drug industry. Their best hope to continue uninterrupted with their corruption and manipulation is to have a zombie population, one that’s under-educated and over-medicated.

Though psychotropic drugs like LSD are illegal, drugs like amphetamines that "treat" ADHD are encouraged for their abilities to subdue petulant children and make them more manageable for parents and schools. The disparities in who gets prescribed psychotropic drugs are well documented. Books such as the The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became A Black Disease explore the reasons why "doctors diagnosed schizophrenia in African American patients, particularly African American men, four times as often as in white patients." In Get Up, Stand Up! Levine noted that in 2009 "antipsychotics were the highest grossing class of medications, with sales of $14.6 billion." Though Americans are only 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 90 percent of the Ritalin produced.

For a solution, Bruce Levine suggests, “Instead of behaviorally manipulating or medicating these rebellious kids, in a more democratic society, we would be validating the reasonableness of questioning authority and challenging illegitimate authority. We would be asking: Why are they rebelling? Is the authority that they are rebelling against an illegitimate authority? Can we help these young people rebel in a way that helps them gain more self-respect because it is successful against illegitimate authorities?” (Listen to Levine’s own experience within the profession.)

This is not to deny that mental illness exists. It very much does, but the current approach to solving it is severely impaired. Examine your own mental health and see where you may be taken advantage of. If you’re interested in alternate mental health facilities check out Freelancer’s Union health directory and read member's profiles. Rebellion is not a pathology. It’s one of the first tools toward freedom.

If you think that the drug industry and the psychoanalytical community are above reform, consider this: up until 1973 homosexuality was considered a mental disorder included in the DSM where treatment, including shock therapy, was recommended for patients. Now, two of the most conservative institutions—marriage and the military—are legally required to acknowledge the union (in some states) and the existence of this community. It’s not hard to imagine that diagnosis like ADHD and ADD may have the same outcome.

4. Education

In Levine’s piece, he details the pitfalls and failings of our education system in three points. In one, he says that schools educate for compliance and not democracy. As previously noted, education systems, both higher and elementary are not in the business of creating free thinkers. So in order to unlearn the doctrine and free your mind, a good suggestion comes from Walter Mosley’s Twelve Steps to Political Revelation. In “Meeting of the Twelve” he suggests that you “[g]et together with a dozen people and ask a question that brings to light a cultural or political conundrum. Let each member of the twelve make a brief comment on how they see the problem and what they think might be the solution.... This weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meeting will be an exercise in genius.”

In this way, without the school model, arbitrary test and scores, you create genius, as genius is not the work of one brainy individual, but “a collaborative phenomenon."

If you are in college, be aware that, “the corporatocracy has figured out a way to make [y]our already authoritarian schools even more authoritarian.” College tuition is rising at an alarming rate compared to other consumer spending like medical expenses and housing. Public universities and colleges, described as institutions receiving 60 percent of government funding, are becoming more and more privatized as funding decreases and student contribution through tuition hikes increase.

I attended a meeting at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where a group called Resist and Multiply discussed the egregious tuition hikes this year at CUNY and SUNY (State University of New York) schools and the proposed increases during the next few years. This highly informed and motivated group pointed out that Hunter historically provided education for the underserved lower middle classes, whose families would otherwise be priced out of a higher education for their children. Now, rising tuition and fees, paired with unaffordable food (from private companies) at the college and a 60 percent adjunct population (who themselves are taken advantage of financially and who unlike tenured professors have no job security or incentive to engage in a long-term fight with the students), has tarnished that proud history.

A lesson from this group would be to identify winnable causes to motivate the student body at large. People sign on to things once they see progress. State debts are used to justify most cuts to programs and hikes in spending, so if you’re in a public university, connect with other schools in your state and discuss ways to fight cuts and hikes at your school. If you’re at a private college, find out the school’s accreditation organization here. Every few years schools are up for review by these services, and that creates an opportunity to propose changes through student government or any other student/faculty/administration committee. Visit Campus Progress to learn how for-profit colleges rip off their students. (Also check out their infographic on shrinking Pell Grants.) Form coalitions with other student organizations (ethnic, social, etc.) and pool resources. Co-host events, work on rallies and support each other’s individual causes and events.

If you are yet not in college, reconsider going. There are numerous arguments out there to support this, but it all stems from knowing yourself and what you most want to do with your life (which may be a lot to ask of an 18-year-old). Half the number of admitted students leave without degrees. Though degree holders generally earn more than those without, the majority still won’t get the high-paying jobs their degrees promised. Don’t be seduced by “name-brand” colleges; this matters least when evaluating your education. Go to Dontgotocollege.com and read this article about rethinking the college promise.

5. Apathy

This is probably the most difficult aspect to overcome. In Levine’s last few points, he highlights fundamental consumerism, television and surveillance as tools that contribute to “youth zombification.” An extension of his view of fundamental consumerism is that corporations have successfully co-opted the look of an activist. Even organizations with progressive reputations that form part of the look don’t deserve their current reverence. The most insidious aspect of corporatocracy is that the system has created a culture that supports corporate goods while simultaneously condemning the corporation that produces them. But before I continue on a rant about consumerism, understand that aspiring to the other extreme, asceticism, is just as bad. We all need goods and services. But pledging allegiance to one particular good or service is just as bad as denouncing everything.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in a world that counts on it. As a young person, just living life and trying to survive puts you in too many damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situations. But there are ways to achieve a compromise in a world obsessed with your pacification.

For the personal, examine your own relationship to digital media, television and social networking sites. Can you easily “turn off” from Twittering and Facebooking at will? Do you use it as a tool, or does it rule you? Go to How to Quit Facebook for suggestions on how to examine, reduce or quit the site. Read this article on how to slow down your life. Try something new and different every week. Whether it’s finding a new route to work, going to a cooking class or even skipping your favorite TV show for a stroll in the park, these small actions prove that you do have the power to change your own life, and eventually, the reality of this generation.

For a political solution, engage in some form of social justice action. If that seems too extreme for you, consider this quote from Get Up, Stand Up!: “People have been led to believe that their oppression is 'normal'; they are told, 'Nothing personal, it’s just the market.' [Steve] Meacham [organizer for City Life/Vida Urbana] believes that organizing is about changing this framing.” Organizing and advocating is probably the best long-term strategy for getting youth out of their personal and political pain.

Take the Forgive Student Loan Debt campaign. Applebaum, though affiliated with other organizations that work on this issue, started it on his own accord out of his living room with a Facebook post. He now has a petition that’s creating more and more traction, a website, a blog and a highly active Facebook presence (now, there’s a good reason to Facebook). He considers himself the default leader because he started the campaign, but admins in the group have just as much say as he does. For youth wary of subscribing to another campaign or organization that would use their youthful zeal toward its own agenda, this a good mantle to take up.

Becoming connected with other like-minded individuals is probably the most significant step toward personal freedom. To use those connections to build coalitions and power toward political freedom is the best form of resistance any movement can adopt. In a recent article, Peter Dreier, a professor of politics said:

Riots occur when people are hopeless. Civil disobedience takes place when people are hopeful—when people believe not only that things should be different but also that they can be different.

There’s no need for the extreme violent action we saw in London a few weeks ago, though the plights are real there and here. With careful, strategic planning, inter-generational cooperation and long-term goal oriented actions, we can create a youth uprising that’s powerful, sustained, thoughtful and inclusive and finally get out of our pain.

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