When Your Banker Takes Charge of Your Life

When Your Banker Takes Charge of Your Life

When Your Banker Takes Charge of Your Life

A flood of reader mail responding to last week’s column on the impact of rising levels of student debt shows what happens when your banker takes charge of your life.


Last week Howl was screaming about the jump in student-loan interest rates and, more generally, about the whopping debts college and professional-school graduates are taking with them into the world. The piece elicited reader response that you may find interesting.

Jena from San Francisco says:

“One of the reasons I am homeless was that I chose kids over education. Now that they’re grown and on their own, and their father long ago ‘started over’ with someone thirty years younger, and the city where I grew up and raised them (alone for nine years) is gentrifying (auctioning off the basics to the highest bidder), I can’t afford to live here except as a street person with stays in friends’ garages or dens.

“My kids can’t afford to live here either. All have kids, two have college debt and one isn’t working, so can’t afford to help me in any way. I don’t expect that. But I can’t even afford healthcare working two jobs at $5 an hour. Never mind housing. Plus, it’s up to me to take care of my mother, who is in her 90s. I was a middle-class person thirty years ago, even twenty. I didn’t know that kids were becoming a kind of luxury possession. In my mind, having kids would mean building a strong and helpful family unit. Everybody would work to help others. That hasn’t been true. Some of it is character flaws I gave my kids, some is their own, some is social change. I think it’s true that I love my kids. But if I had to do it over, I’d choose education, a good job and being child-free. I’d get the best education I could manage and spend the rest of my life paying it off if I had to, because I’d still be a person with more skills and wider perspectives. I’d choose being a productive member of society who could die saying, ‘I didn’t contribute to an increase in human numbers.’ I’d take care of kids with no families or lonely misunderstood kids, like I talk to on the street.”

Wendy from Tampa, Florida, writes:

“I am a 32-year-old PhD student. Having taken some time off right after my undergraduate degree to travel, I may be a bit older than others. Having to pay for graduate school myself, I had no choice but to take out student loans. I have always maintained an assistantship and even tuition waivers. However, ten hours a week and the increasing fees attached to waivers forced me to take out loans. As an applied anthropologist interested in public housing and community development issues, I do not see a high-end salary in the near future. I do not see any home ownership or children in my future due to my student loan debt.”

Bridgett from suburban Cleveland, Ohio, says:

“I loved your article ‘Student Debts, Stunted Lives.’ This is exactly the situation my husband and I are facing, only we have a student loan debt of $140,000… not $40,000 or $50,000.

“I have friends who are in the same financial boat that we are, with the same level of debt. There appears to be no way for many of the middle class (too poor to pay without loans and too rich for financial aid) to get an advanced degree without accumulating that kind of debt. We are in the same position and may have to be childless as a result, though we don’t want to be.

“The college teaching market (which requires doctoral degrees) collapsed (moving from full-time tenured profs with benefits and good salaries to relying on part-time employees without benefits who do the same amount of work as a full-timer for $8,000 a year) about the time we were finishing up our degrees. I was getting my masters at the time and did not continue on to my doctorate because of the market shift. Now we work in administrative jobs wherever we can to try and make our $1,200-per-month student-loan payments… and our jobs are not high-paying.

“Please realize that the debt load of many students is often three times that of what you printed in your article. We will be paying until we are over 60, and what is not paid by then, we will be taxed on. The problem is much worse than even your article illustrated.”

And then there is TJ from Rensselaer, New York, who e-mails to say:

“As of right now I am $74,000 in debt, and I am probably going to double that by the time I finish graduate school. My sister, by the way, is standing close to $108,000, and she has not even begun graduate school. She wants to be a social worker, so that’s $108,000 in debt plus graduate-school debt on a social worker’s salary. We are going to be two very smart, highly educated poor people. I can’t wait to live the next thirty years working it off, to find later at retirement that the Social Security system went bankrupt. All the while I was supposed to be saving for retirement and paying $500 to $600 a month on student debt? My generation is really going to have a fun time. I can’t wait!”

This is not debt from self-indulgence that we are talking about. This is not aimless-shopping-mall debt, going into hock for $200 jeans and $300 sneaks. This is debt for going to school. Education debt.

Debt is thralldom. Debt means you take the job you do not really want. Debt means you cannot afford to serve others. Debt means you cannot take a crack at the important things that do not pay. Debt means no experimentation. Debt means your banker, not you, decides if you are going to have a child. Debt means you cannot take a chance. Debt means you must go along with other people’s politics and their social arrangements because you cannot stick your head up to protest. Debt means you are a slave.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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