Ep. 13: Bills, Bills, (Student) Bills

Mia Fermindoza:  Do you even know how much sperm costs? 

Briahna Joy Gray: That was Mia, our video director, and that ejaculation wasn’t random. It was her very substantive response to a question I asked about half a dozen on my co-workers here at Bernie HQ. That question was this: What would you do if you didn’t have student debt? 

Mia Fermindoza:   I’m a queer woman and I’m nearing my early 30s. I would like to plan for a family, and one of the largest and most substantial considerations when you are with a female partner is how to get that going. Without student debt, I could start saying to myself, “Okay, this is what I want to do in the next five years of my life.” I know that the numbers would add up comfortably for me to afford not only potential in vitro, potential fertility clinic visits; but knowing that my lifestyle requires those added measures for me to start a family, without student debt it’s a no-brainer for me.

Briahna Joy Gray:  The answers were varied, but uniformly confident. This generation, millennials, both characterized as frivolous by a media class dominated by boomers and Gen Xers, only wanted the very basics: a family, a home, an opportunity to get more education. 

Briana Blueitt:  I have ambitions to pursue a career in public service; but I think that given the fact that starting salaries to work on Capitol Hill are $30,000 a year, etc., I don’t think that’s necessarily sustainable. 

Aryana Asefirad: I would be helping pay my parent’s mortgage. I would be saving up to buy a house for myself.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Do you even think about that now as a real possibility?

Aryana Asefirad:  It’s like not… because I just have to focus on paying the debt. 

Julia: So, I think that I would probably be saving to purchase a home, saving for my retirement; also saving to, in the future, help my parents out. I know that they’re getting up there in age, and that’s something that… Although I am the youngest, I am the only child with an education.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Have you been able to save at all, so far?

Speaker:  No, not at all. Right now, I’m working on paying my loans. 

Erica England:  I feel like I didn’t have this debt now, I would definitely be done with school by now. I want to start a family. Sounds crazy, but I would be interested in even going higher with my education than I have at this point.

Briahna Joy Gray:  That doesn’t sound crazy.

Erica England:  Talking about this now, already talking about the debt that I have, I’m like, “You must be out of your mind to want to continue with your education,” but I feel like it’s important.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah. That breaks my heart to hear you say that.

Erica England:  It’s important. There’s so many things that you can do when you don’t have that enormous amount of debt lingering over your head. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray, and I’m coming to you from campaign headquarters here in Washington, D.C. This week is all about student debt. We’re going to unpack the revolutionary student debt cancellation plan Bernie Sanders released last week, and debunk some of the biggest misunderstandings about the policy to cancel all student debt.

Also, remember when black billionaire Robert F. Smith canceled the debt of every student in the graduating class at Morehouse, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta? Well, we spoke to Jordan Long, the young man who would have been among those who had their debt canceled, if not for the fact that he had dropped out after sophomore year. Why? Because he couldn’t afford tuition. Bernie believes that education is a human right, and this week we’re going to make the case to America.

From the moment Bernie Sanders first brought the notion of free public college into the mainstream back in 2015, he’s been met with fierce pushback, and not just from Republicans, but moderate Democrats who are committed to the argument that free higher education was just too silly to consider.

Speaker:  Nobody got their loans forgiven.

Speaker:  Do you think the 1% could pay for all of this?

Speaker: Yeah, I wish it could have happened to me, but I don’t think it’s good economics or good policy.

Briahna Joy Gray:  But after his unexpected success in the 2016 primary, more and more Democrats began to come around to the idea that public education shouldn’t stop at 12th grade, especially if we live in a society that increasingly demands post-secondary education to secure a dignified, healthy life. Today, nearly every major candidate includes some kind of free post-secondary education as part of their platform, including Joe Biden, who in 2005 backed a bill that makes it impossible for students to discharge our debt through bankruptcy, making student debt a life sentence no matter what.

David Sirota: There was this push by Biden, he was a key Democrat pushing the bankruptcy bill that was ultimately signed by President George W. Bush that eliminated the ability of most Americans to seek bankruptcy protections not only for their government loans but also for their private student loans. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  Now, Elizabeth Warren has gone farther than most with her plan to cancel student debt, but it only goes as far as canceling $50,000 of debt tops, and her plan cancels progressively less debt for those making over $100K. Last week, Bernie blew all the competition out of the water with his plan to cancel all student debt. All of it. Every last penny. Your debt is canceled if you incurred it in grad school; it’s canceled if you took it out for housing, or books for school; it’s canceled if your parents took it out for your education, or if you’re a parent yourself paying for your kids. They’re canceled if you consolidated or refinanced your loans. They’re canceled if you’re on a loan forgiveness or a pay-what-you-can-earn plan. Your loans are canceled if you went to trade school, public college, or private school. It’s all canceled…canceled, canceled, canceled, canceled.

So, how do we pay for it? Well, the plan will cost about $1.6 trillion; that’s about the same as Trump’s tax cut, but 85% of Trump’s tax cut went to the top 1%. Bernie thinks it’s time for the banks we bailed out to help bail out Americans, and that’s why his debt cancellation plan will be paid for by a 0.5% transaction fee on speculative trading. Over the span of 10 years, that is estimated to add up to well over $2 trillion, more than enough to cover everyone’s student loans. In short, Wall Street is footing the bill.

 Bernie’s plan will help 45 million Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom are low-income or middle class. 80% of all student debt is held by those making less than $127,000 a year; and families making less than $60,000 a year took out 280% more student loan debt than families making over $100K, according to a 2013 study. It’s important to recognize that this bill goes a long way to closing gender and racial disparities. Women hold two thirds of all student loan debt; and according to one study, if we canceled all student loan debt back in 2016, we would have shrunk the racial wealth gap between young white and black households, ages 25 to 40, from 12:1 to 5:1. Moreover, it will help the economy, which helps everyone regardless of whether or not they personally hold student loans.

 Republican tax cuts often don’t stimulate the economy because they go only to the 1%, who invest in themselves rather than America, but Bernie’s college-for-all plan means that people like you and me will finally be able to buy homes and have kids if we want, spend our checks on consumer goods rather than sending them off to Great Lakes every month. Bernie’s plan will create 1.5 million new jobs every year, and boost our economy by $1 trillion over the course of the next 10 years. One study even showed that even if you don’t have debt, debt cancellation raises your salary by an average of $4,000 over a three-year period.

 Now, if I sound a little giddy it’s because I have a substantial amount of student debt remaining from law school. I graduated eight years ago and have been making $2,300 monthly payments since I started my first job at a law firm, and yet I still owe nearly $100,000 of the $180,000 I originally took out. So, if you’re doing some math and asking why, the answer is interest. According to my first 1099, I paid about $18,000 of interest versus $5,000 of principal my first year; and I’ve got to tell, you when I saw that breakdown, I literally dropped to my knees in my studio apartment and sobbed. I was lucky enough to be able to keep up with my payments, but the prospect of having to stay in a high-stress, unsatisfying job for a decade, just so I didn’t fall behind, was more than a little demoralizing, and I recognize that I’m pretty lucky in the grand scheme of things. 

Malaika Jabali:  I’m actually a little bit embarrassed about the size of my student loan debt, so I won’t get into specifics; but I will say that if I were to pay the minimum amount for the full term, I would still owe $1 million on my debt. So, I’ve just decided I’m going to die with my debt. I don’t have any other way of discharging it. I’m not going to be a billionaire, so what else am I going to do?

Briahna Joy Gray:  That was Malaika Jabali: lawyer, journalist, and a friend of mine who you might remember from episode six of the podcast when she joined me for a conversation about electability. I reached out to Malaika because, among my friends, she has one of the higher debt burdens, and it’s a pretty competitive field. So, how did this happen? First, she got a master’s degree, which costs about $100,000 despite scholarships.

Malaika Jabali:  Then, I got my law degree, which was about $200,000.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Right. From Columbia.

Malaika Jabali:  Yes, both of them from Columbia, and for my law degree they required us to take out loans. They said, “If you want any free money, if you want any grants, you must take out student loans,” so I didn’t really have much of a choice. If I wanted to go to law school, that was what I had. What I’m paying doesn’t even cover the interest.

Briahna Joy Gray:  And the interest. Oh, man. The interest. 

Malaika Jabali:  I get $25,000 in interest a year, which will just keep compounding. I’ve been working in government, in public service, since I graduated.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Even though she’s taken advantage of public interest loan forgiveness programs, which “forgive” debt after working in public interest jobs for 10 years, Malaika has still been struggling to keep up.

Malaika Jabali:  I couldn’t afford $1200. They’re only covering two thirds of it. So, even with the one third payment less, it would have been too much for me to cover it with my income because I still had my previous grad school debt. I went with the federal government program; so I did that one and just didn’t bother with my school’s because I would have still been paying too much out of pocket and I couldn’t afford to, because I was making $50,000 coming out of law school working in public service.

Briahna Joy Gray:  What would you do, Malaika, if you didn’t have that debt? Has it ever affected your career choices?

Malaika Jabali:  I mean I wouldn’t have gone to law school in the first place if I knew that a creative career could fund my life.

Briahna Joy Gray:  I heard this story again and again. 

This is Aryana, who works in the campaign’s advance team. You heard her at the top of this episode saying that if she didn’t have loans, she’d be helping her parents with her mortgage.

Aryana Asefirad:  Honestly, that’s also part of reason why I didn’t go to grad school is because I was like, “I want to at least get half of my student debt cut in half,” or something like that, pay it off, and I haven’t been able to do that.

Briahna Joy Gray:  What kind of grad school do you think you would have wanted to go to?

Aryana Asefirad:  I would love to go to USC, the University of Southern California, for global health or public health. That’s the dream.

Briahna Joy Gray:  So, we could have another young person helping us with global health crises if she weren’t feeling so burdened by her student debt, and the student debt incurred by the rest of her family members, which everyone has to pitch in and help with.

Aryana Asefirad:  Exactly.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Remember that Mia, who opened this episode, is the campaign’s video director. She explained that her loans, though relatively small, were a real obstacle for her, because pursuing a career in video requires significant outlays on equipment, equipment you might not be able to afford if you have student debt.

Mia Fermindoza:  I always had to trade, “Am I going to invest in second-hand gear or am I going to put off the job, the gig, the photo shoot that I want to do, because my interest is just going to get higher and higher, and the principal just never goes away.

Briahna Joy Gray:  And it really did break my heart to hear Erica, a Howard student and second-generation immigrant, describe her dream of going to law school as crazy just because it’s so expensive. 

This is an important point. The cost of school is robbing us of public health workers, public interest lawyers, policy experts, politicians, and talented creatives. In just 30 years, the average cost of public four-year universities has tripled from $3,360 to $10,000 per year, and that $10,000 doesn’t include the cost of room and board. At the same time, real hourly wages for college graduates have remained all but stagnant since 2001, with the median growing by less than $1. As a result, two thirds of today’s college students graduate with debt. The average is nearly $30,000, with one out of six owing more than $50K.

 With a bottom 80% of earners in this country holding $1.1 trillion of the $1.6 trillion total student debt, this is not primarily a problem for rich kids, despite what you might have heard. In fact, marginalized groups are particularly affected, like black women who owe a disproportionately high amount of debt. Among African-American borrowers who started school in 2003, balances have grown by a median 113% over the 12 years following graduation; and during the same period of time, one in two have defaulted on their loans. There’s something really perverse about a narrative that says, “If you want to close the racial wealth gap, go to school, achieve, get a certain kind of job,” but which ignores that getting an education can be a double-edged sword.

Jordan Long:  Now, the people who were trying to change their class or just learn more, now those people and their families who are taking these Parent PLUS Loans, now they’re going to be shackled by debt. So, they’re being punished just for trying to get ahead or learn, and that is more than a shame to be changed immediately, it should have been changed yesterday, and needs to be changed today and tomorrow.

Briahna Joy Gray:  That was Jordan Long, who made headlines earlier this year after he tweeted about how it felt to have dropped out of the 2019 class of Morehouse after sophomore year due to costs, only to find that black billionaire, Robert F. Smith, announced he would pay the tuition balance of the entire graduating class on graduation day. It was a life-changing moment for the school’s overwhelmingly black student body who, as I mentioned, are particularly burdened by student debt. But for Jordan, it was a painful reminder of how college costs create winners and losers not based on meritocracy, but on dumb luck. He walked me through finding out the news on what would have been his graduation day.

Jordan Long:  My sleep schedule was off that day. I remember waking up really early in the morning and seeing everyone getting ready for graduation. I saw all these tweets about a billionaire and paying off loans, and I’m like, “What?” Then, it’s on the top thing of Twitter. I’m seeing my Morehouse brothers tweeting about it, and I’m like, “Wait. What?” Then, I text my friend and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. Congratulations. Well, you guys got all your stuff paid off,” it’s like an Oprah moment where you’re like, “Look under your chairs, everybody!” 

Then, I was also like, “Wait a minute. That could have been me,” and I was like, “Damn, that really, really sucks.” I’m going to have to hear everybody’s ignorant opinion about, “Oh, you should have stayed in,” or “Why didn’t you get more loans?” and they’re just going to say something without thinking about it, thinking about the position people are in, thinking about the system that is going on, and I was like, kill me, “I really have to deal with this now.”

Briahna Joy Gray:  Jordan doesn’t begrudge his classmates who got lucky, but he understands that the student debt crisis is a systemic one that isn’t going to be solved by random acts of charity.

Jordan Long:  But also like, “This is not my fault.” If people would have been paying their taxes, if we had been requiring people to pay their taxes, and we had those morals and beliefs, and cared about lives and black lives, black poor lives… and middle class, not middle class, all lives, all black lives matter… then I wouldn’t need the debt to be canceled off; and then also I would have graduated as well, had my degree the same day with my friends and with the people who I had been working with, organizing with, studying with, learning with, growing with, collaborating with, and planning to do that in the future as well, which I’m still doing, just not with a degree from Morehouse.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Jordan understands that the student debt crisis isn’t going to be solved via the benevolence of billionaires.

Jordan Long:  Don’t individualize this problem. This is a systemic issue. This is something that all other kinds of people are dealing with as well, and you can’t blame yourself for this. Morehouse told us at the door, from the gate, saying, “Look to your left; look to your right. Not everyone will graduate with you. You’re going to lose one of your brothers,” or whatever, something like that. I can’t blame myself. I have to keep going.

Also, just another reminder that charity is not the solution. You have to make real solutions. You have to make radical changes if you want to stop systemic problems. So, trying to use capitalism to save us is not going to work. So, you have to really strategize. You have to really work with these communities. You have to really plan together to do something better than that, I think. I think black capitalism is not an option; it’s not the solution.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Jordan is currently enrolled in community college in Oakland and is still on track to get his degree, but there was a reason why he wanted to graduate from Morehouse.

Jordan Long:  I wanted to start video game publishing when I went to Morehouse; that was one of my big things. That’s why I wanted a business degree, so I could publish games made by black and queer folk, about their experiences and made by them, so we could have more diversity in the market as well, and also because they’re such a great tool for telling stories. Also, I really enjoy setting the communities and video games, and the societies that people make themselves. Once the developers make the world, and I like seeing what the community does with it. That is one of the most fascinating things to me.

Briahna Joy Gray:  There’s a line of argument out there that says that everyone who took out student debt, without a plan to earn the big bucks, is a fool; but that ignores that may socially useful jobs… like policy jobs, and public interest jobs, social work, and teaching… require advanced degrees even though they don’t come with big salaries. Moreover, that strictly utilitarian perspective on education has never been what’s made this country the beacon of innovation and creativity it historically has been.

Ben Dalton:  People often are like, “Well, you got yourself into this. You had the information available. You chose to get a degree in left-handed puppetry,” or whatever, “and now you have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt,” strikes me as a very utilitarian-minded idea of what education is or can be.

Briahna Joy Gray:  That was Ben Dalton, our podcast producer, who I finally convinced to join me on the pod. Now, he made a good point: that as technology gets better, automation gets more common, and people need less labor to survive, purpose will be increasingly found in creative, caretaking, or scientific spheres where technology just hasn’t quite caught up.

Ben Dalton:  Especially in the economy that we’re moving into where it’s going to be a mass group of people who are serving the whims of the super-rich; perhaps left-handed puppetry is exactly what they would like to see us do for them. I don’t buy the strict utilitarian, “You should only get a degree in something that you know for sure is going to pay dividends.”

Briahna Joy Gray:  You know very well, because you edit out a lot of my references to Star Trek, the vision of a utopian Star Trek future is one in which there’s no need to work to make food or to provide basic things for people anymore, so the jobs that folks have on the show are things like archeologists. You know, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is a space archeologist; that’s what he trained in, I guess, before going to Starfleet and becoming a captain, and he was chosen to lead that mission through the stars because he has that background and he brings that to bear when he encounters new species, etc. 

 The idea that if we move into a world where there is automation and we don’t need to literally get trained in trade anymore, the idea that that means we are all just like lazy sitting at our computer is I think a really wrong way to think about it. I think that we should imagine a world where we’re all more like scientists and explorers and doctors and people trying to figure out how to make our lives better in all the ways that machines are a long way from being able to do.

Ben Dalton:  Yeah. I mean, if the horizon of your politics isn’t utopian, then what are you even doing?

Briahna Joy Gray:  Now, what distinguishes Bernie’s plan from the plans put forth by other candidates is that it treats education as a human right, not just a privilege for an elite few. To understand the thinking behind it, I chatted with Alex Jacquez who’s on the policy team that helped draft the bill, along with representatives Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal. 

 A lot of people are asking, “Why cancel debt for everyone?” What’s the logic there?

Alex Jacquez:  Sure. What we have now is a $1.6 trillion crisis. We have seen a whole generation of young people unable to start families, to buy homes, to do the kinds of things to set themselves up for a life that their parents had, or their grandparents. But it’s also not only a challenge for young people. Right now, we’re seeing millions of older Americans over 60 years old with thousands of dollars of student debt to pay. Really, we are just going to reset our entire failed higher educational system, forgive all $1.6 trillion outstanding in student debt; and then going forward, make colleges, public colleges and universities, tuition-free. 

 What we’re also going to do going forward is cap the interest rates that you pay on student loans going forward. So, if you do take out a student loan to go to a private college or university, you’re not going to pay any more than 1.88% interest.

Briahna Joy Gray:  When Alex mentioned older Americans, I was reminded of Ms. Allan, a woman I met in Texas at a rally earlier this year. Ms. Allan went back to school for a late-in-life bachelor’s degree, and was now retired with six figures of debt. 

Ms. Allan:  I was a police officer for 21 years here in the city of Houston, and I took protecting and serving our community seriously. I felt that that was for everybody, not just for a select group, and I feel like Bernie is like that. He wants to help everybody. Now, realistically, can he? We don’t know, but I’m going to give him an opportunity.

 See, I went to school late. I retired and then I finished school, so I have over $100,000 worth of… between my bachelor’s and my master’s degree, I have $100,000 worth of…

Briahna Joy Gray:  I need you to say that one more time. How much student loans do you have?

Ms. Allan:  Over $100,000 in student loan debt. When you talk about the interest and everything else: I got my bachelor’s in 2005, and I got my master’s in 2012; and between then and now, I have over $100,000 in student loan debt.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Ms. Allan certainly understood the evils of interest first-hand.

Ms. Allan:  Compound interest is the best and the worst thing that could ever happen to you. If you’re on the receiving end of it, it is fantastic; if you’re on the giving end, it’s horrible. The government should not be in the business of enslaving its citizens, and that’s what it is.

Briahna Joy Gray:  That’s what it feels like.

Ms. Allan:  It’s another form of slavery.

Briahna Joy Gray:  It’s a form of bondage. 

Hearing stories like this, there’s such a disconnect with the prevailing narratives in the media.

This is Alex again.

Alex Jacquez:  I think what you’ll see is that you have to look again where folks are coming from. If you look at folks that are taking out higher rates of student debt, they are often not coming from wealthier families. Folks that come from wealthier families often don’t have to take out loans to go to school.

Briahna Joy Gray:  No one takes out a 7% interest rate loan for shits and giggles.

Alex Jacquez:  Sure. I think what we’re seeing in a lot of industries, too… Take my brother, for example: he’s in medical school and will graduate with about $220,000 worth of debt, and we need doctors in rural hospitals, we need them in VA facilities, going into family medicine instead of dermatology and orthopedics where you can make really good money, and it’s hard to get good doctors into some of those relatively lower paying jobs when they have hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt to pay back; same thing with law school. I’m sure you had classmates that are now doing corporate law or doing something they don’t maybe necessarily believe in.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah. It was me until a little over a year ago, so I empathize a great deal.

Alex Jacquez:  Sure. What if we could get those same people into public defender roles, and doing nonprofit work, and things like that? So, this is really a reset on our higher educational system. More than half of people that take out loans don’t end up graduating, and then you’re saddled with thousands of dollars of debt, and then not even a degree to get that premium that you thought you were getting on future wages.

Briahna Joy Gray:  What is Bernie Sanders doing about the rising costs of college? Because that’s part of the issue, that costs have grown exponentially compared to the rate of inflation over the course of the last few decades.

Alex Jacquez:  Definitely, and I think that’s a place you’ll see, going back just 30, 40 years, costs of tuition have far, far exceeded not just inflation, but wage gains, too. So, you’re paying even more, and then coming out and making just as much as you were in 1975. Going forward, all public colleges, universities, trade schools, two and four year, will be tuition-free. We’re also expanding programs to help first-generation students, and students that don’t necessarily have the institutional knowledge as other students might, to get them services that they can use to make sure they stay in school and get those degrees, and just really transforming our notion of higher education into a right. I think that’s Bernie’s biggest point here is that he wants to turn K-12 education, and then public colleges and universities, into a fundamental right for being an American.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Now, Alex was actually only one of two people I spoke to who didn’t have debt. Not so coincidentally, he was also the only person I spoke to who owned a home.

Alex Jacquez:  I have no outstanding student loan debt like so many of my friends do. I hear their stories all the time and I can’t image if I had an extra $200, $300, $400 a month payment to make. I definitely probably wouldn’t have started in politics; it’s not, as listeners might be surprised to hear, the place where you go to make the big bucks.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Unless you’re a few blocks over on K Street. 

Alex Jacquez:  Sure. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  The other Bernie staffer I spoke to who was debt-free was communications staffer, Briana Blueitt who went to college for free on her mom’s GI bill. Like Alex, Briana says she wouldn’t have been able to join this movement otherwise.

Briana Blueitt:  I have ambitions to pursue a career in public service; but I think that given the fact that starting salaries to work on Capitol Hill are $30,000 a year, etc., I don’t think that’s necessarily sustainable to be able to pay off a surmountable amount of student loans, which luckily I do not have; but even with the debt that I do have, I still don’t think that that would be an adequate salary. I think I’d probably be a little bit more inclined to take a job with a cushy consulting firm or something; there are no shortage of those here in D.C., that’s for sure. But, yeah, I think that I would be much more inclined to take some sort of job along those lines as opposed to a job in public service.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Well, I’m glad we got you instead of Booz Allen. 

 This is what makes me, and so many other people with student debt, so frustrated about the discourse. Moderates on both side of the aisle insist that this is some kind of a windfall for the rich. 

Amy Klobuchar:  I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids. I do.

Speaker:  Whoa. Wait a minute. You’re going to wipe out $1.6 trillion in student debt. What about all the people who have prioritized their student debt paydown at the expense of their savings, their 401(k) investments, their home purchasing?

Ben Shapiro: It’s absolute nonsense. You know the reason it’s absolute nonsense? Because many rich people do take out student loan debt specifically because they want their kids to have to pay off the debt.

Briahna Joy Gray:  But far from a bunch of lazy rich kids, everyone I spoke to simply wanted to go to school to take care of their family or otherwise enrich their communities. The people who are complaining… well, they were the rich kids. 

Aryana Asefirad:  I was talking about it today. I was so angry because me and my friend had a conversation, and she was like, “I don’t understand. I don’t really think it’s a good idea,” blah-blah-blah, and I was like, “No.” She has zero student debt.

Briahna Joy Gray:  That’s Aryana again. 

Aryana Asefirad:  So, she does not understand the struggle is so real, and honestly, I hate it. I hate student debt. It’s literally the worst thing also because I see my parents are struggling to pay my student debt, my sister’s, and my brother’s in college, too; and on top of that they have a mortgage, and my dad just lost his job. So, it’s definitely been very difficult having to pay these student debts, student loans, everything, and it all just keeps adding up. Definitely, if I did not have this debt, I would be helping pay my parent’s mortgage; I would be saving up to buy a house for myself.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Do you even think about that now as a real possibility?

Aryana Asefirad:  It’s like not. Because I just have to focus on paying the debt.

Julia:  Right now, my monthly payments are $200 a month, so that’s something that’s feasible for me now, but a few months ago it wasn’t because I wasn’t making as much money as I was. I was working two jobs in order to stay afloat.

Briahna Joy Gray:  That’s Julia from our policy team. At the top of this episode, she’s the one who said that but for her loan, she’d be able to save for retirement, purchase a home, or help out her parents. 

 When you’re on those pay-as-you-earn plans, does the interest continue to accrue?

Julia:  Yes, it does. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  What does you balance look like now versus when you graduate? Because a lot of people’s balance actually is getting larger.

Julia:  I haven’t looked into it too far.

Briahna Joy Gray:  It’s too depressing.

Julia:  Yeah. But that was also after months of trying to get my loans consolidated to do the repayment program, because some of my loans weren’t qualifying for that, so it was a mess to actually figure that out. I didn’t have someone that knew the system well, so I had to do it on my own and figure out what the best and most efficient way to pay my loans off.

Briahna Joy Gray:  It’s incredibly difficult.

Julia:  Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Even for someone who’s on our policy team.

Julia:  Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray:  You can be brilliant and very qualified to be looking through this kind of thing and still have a difficult time sorting it all out.

Julia:  Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray:  So, you did consolidate your loans?

Julia:  Yes, I did.

Briahna Joy Gray:  A lot of people have been asking me if you have consolidated loans, does Bernie’s loan cancellation plan still apply to you, and the answer is?

Julia:  Yes. Absolutely.

Briahna Joy Gray:  The fact that so many of us, folks in our early 30s, haven’t started saving for retirement, it’s setting up our society of a serious crisis. This is Julia again.

Have you been able to save, so far?

Julia:  No. Not at all. Right now, I’m working on paying my loans, and just making sure that I’m able to live here in D.C.

Briahna Joy Gray:  And here’s Malaika.

Malaika Jabali:  I’m really limited in terms of saving for anything. I in my 30s just started putting money into a retirement account, and it’s not even like a Roth or anything yet; but I just started doing that and I’m 33, and I know a lot of people who have been doing this since their 20s, but I just literally couldn’t. 

Then, I’m a first generation professional. I didn’t have anybody else in my family who had gone to law school, or went to med school, or b-school or anything; and when it comes to helping out with my family, I also have to take out money for that, too. So, I would have a lot more freedom in terms of my own financial opportunities, like buying a home or thinking about… I can’t think about kids right now; I can’t afford it, and I’m 33. I’m about to be 34, and I cannot afford a child, I cannot afford childcare, and it’s having quite an impact on my life. 

I was really in a state of economic anxiety pretty much all last year because I was nervous about what a career transition would look like without having financial security, because I would like to write full-time… don’t tell my bosses that. Here’s the thing: I would like to do that full time, I just can’t right now, I want health coverage, and I want to be able to start thinking about a family, which I thought I would be doing by 28; and lo and behold, that has not happened yet because I just can’t afford to. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  If you’re talking to black people like we are and saying, “If you want to participate, if you want to compete, if you want to have true access and equality in society, you should go and get an education,” but not really take into account that we are taking out more debt that other people because our families don’t have the same resources, because of generational wealth divides, and that we are burdened longer after we graduate than other groups. What you’re basically saying is that that kind of education, which is supposed to be a leg up, is only reserved for people who already have means, and that’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing in this country.

The media blames millennials for everything. Literally. There are articles blaming us for the decline of diamond sales, house sales, the golf industry, the music business, the napkin industry, vacation, relationships, Home Depot, suits, and even the American Dream itself. But what if the problem isn’t with millennials, but the fact that we just don’t have the disposable income to spend on those things?

This is Erica again who is currently in the middle of her own personal student debt crisis.

Erica England:  I just got a call yesterday from a debt collector because I’m supposed to be taking classes in the fall, and they were like, “Yeah, you owe about $10,500 that’s due before classes start in the fall,” so I have to make sure… I have to take out another loan to clear that balance up. My father’s an immigrant, so that was the reason he came here. He got an education, like lottery opportunity from his home country, and he came here, he studied, and he worked two and three jobs while he was in college; but at that time, he was able to, that combined with scholarship, he was able to put himself through school, and it’s not like that now. I’m the first child in my family to go to school; there’s three of us. I don’t know if my parents… I don’t know if they realize how much things had changed since they were in school.

Briahna Joy Gray:  I asked Erica, and everyone I spoke to: When Bernie wins and cancels all student debt, what will you do? How will it change your life? 

Imagine a world where you have zero student debt, and college and grad school education in America is free. How does that change how you make decisions for tomorrow and next year and the year after that?

Erica England:  Oh, I could save. I could get married. I could start a family. Because I don’t want to go into a committed relationship with all of this debt. I could buy a house. It’s amazing to me. My mother, she’ll pick at me sometimes, “When I was your age, I had two kids, a mortgage, and two car payments,” and I’m like, “Okay. You want a cookie? Do you want a cookie, mommy?” 

Briahna Joy Gray:  It’s not about avocado toast. You know, we’re not just a superficial generation. We actually do want to meet the milestones that the generations before us have met. We get all these crazy articles like, “The millennials are destroying the diamond industry.” Well, we’re not getting married. “The millennials are destroying the housing industry.” Well, we can’t afford to buy a home; and I don’t think that certain older generations, or privileged people in other respects, fully understand how much that’s not just rhetoric; it is truly something that comes up again and again when I’m talking to my peers about the choices that we’re making.

How did you feel when you found out that Bernie Sanders was going to cancel all student debt?

Erica England:  I think I cut a two-step in my living room like, “Oh, yes! Thank God. Thank God.” Like, put this man in the White House. Please, put this man in the White House. This is going to be amazing because there’s so many things that you can do when you don’t have that enormous amount of debt lingering over your head. I feel like people are going to be elderly still dealing with this debt if this doesn’t happen.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah. 40,000 seniors have their social security checks garnished for tuition payments in 2015.

Erica England:   That’s disgusting.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah. 

Erica England:  Already on a fixed income, a lot of them.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Yeah. But we’re going to fix it.

Erica England:   Yes, we are.

Bernie Sanders:  It is time to hit the reset button. Under the proposal that we introduce today, all student debt would be cancelled in six months. By taking this action, we not only provide immediate financial relief to 45 million Americans who have $1.6 trillion in debt, but we will be improving the entire economy. Let’s be clear. The millennial generation was told that the only way they would get the good jobs available is if they received a college education. Unfortunately, that turned out to be bad advice. It was wrong. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  That’s it for this week. As always, please share your ideas and feedback at [email protected], or send us a tweet with the #HearTheBern. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to rate, review, or like us on Apple Podcast, SoundCloud, or wherever you’re listening. As always, a transcript will be up soon.

 Until next time.