On Not Feeling Slapped in the Face

Hey there! I am not, in fact, dead. As far as I know…. I kinda can’t believe that it’s been almost two months since I last wrote. So much has happened in that time! And so, SO much of it has made me incandescently angry! I was going to list them, but then I realized that would make me even angrier. So I’m going to pretend that the last couple of months didn’t actually exist, and start afresh with the new-ish things that are making me mad. Exhibit A—the way people are reacting to Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive student debt.

In case you missed it, Warren is proposing a plan that cancels debt for 95% of Americans with student loan debts, and completely wipes out the debt for 75% of Americans with student loan debts. The plan is to fund it with a mix of a tax increase on the wealthy and the increase in GDP that freeing so many people from debt would likely have. This proposal is paired with an idea for zero tuition and fees for two-year and four-year public colleges, additional Pell grants, a removal of federal support to for-profit colleges, a fund for HBCUs, and an assessment of enrollment and graduation for lower-income students, students of color, non-citizen students, and students with a criminal history. Which… wow. *goes to donate some money to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign*

And like clockwork, the Bad Takes emerged, most of them some variation of “how will she pay for it?” (she explained how she’ll pay for it) “This will never work!” (this has totally worked in other instances) and most insidiously, “This is a slap in the face to people who paid off their loans!” …We’re going to talk about that one a bit more.

The argument, “Well I had to pay off MY student loans!” comes from the same place as “Well I was hazed/bullied in school and I turned out fine!” “Well I had to pay for my own education!” and “Well no one gave ME a handout.” This argument is based on the idea that because the speaker suffered, other people should have to suffer as well. Otherwise the speaker’s suffering didn’t “mean” enough, and they are jealous and angry of someone else “getting away with” not suffering like they did.

And to be fair, there is a certain level of Alanis Morissette-style irony for people who have already paid off their loans—“It’s a free ride/when you’ve already paid” and all that. And there is no logistically sound proposal that can give the people who have paid off their loans their money or time back—it is gone forever, and that genuinely does suck. They likely went through a lot of hardship to get to the point they are at, and they likely had to sacrifice a lot to get there.

But here’s the thing; I’m one of “those people.” Not one of the people complaining about this plan, mind you, but one of those people that would ostensibly feel “slapped in the face” by the loans of other people being paid. And…. I don’t. I don’t feel mad. At all. I am freaking enthused about this idea.

Because as anyone who has gone through any type of trauma knows, the better, empathetic response to seeing someone else be spared that trauma is, “I’m glad other people don’t have to experience what I did.” As someone who had student loans and finally paid them off, my feelings are “I know how terrible it was to struggle under student loans. I’m so glad other people won’t have to. I had a lot of opportunities to be financially stable at an early age taken away from me. I’m glad that they’ll get chances I didn’t.”

As I’ve mentioned (many times) before, I’m a millennial. I’m a millennial who went to graduate school. I’m a millennial who went to graduate school for English. Which, thanks to our current system, means that I know a loooooooot of brilliant, fantastic people with under-paying jobs, no financial stability, and tons of student loans. Few of them have cars, fewer of them have houses, and the phrase “Do you have a retirement account?” can result in a bark of disbelieving laughter similar to the reaction you’d get if you asked “Do you have the Tom Hiddleston’s phone number?” For a lot of us, our retirement plan, only half joking, is “Hopefully die young.” Ask when someone thinks they’ll pay off their loans and their answer is, “Maybe sometime before I die young.”

Millenials keep getting accused of “killing” industries, from Applebees to paper napkins. But if we’re “killing” them we’re not actively murdering them out of spite—we’re starving them. When you live in a major city, make $12 an hour even with an advanced degree, have 60k in student loans with 6% interest where you can only afford to make minimum payments that only go towards the interest and not the principal, and $800 per month rent for one bedroom in a four bedroom house—well you’re not going to be paying $12 to Applebees to reheat mac and cheese for you when you could be buying a $1 pack of ramen. We are starving these industries because we have nothing to give to them.

When I was able to pay off my student loans, it was one of the greatest senses of relief I ever felt. A weight I didn’t entirely know that I had been carrying with me was lifted. I got to start looking at the world in a new way. I suddenly had hundreds of dollars a month in income that weren’t spoken for. I could open a retirement account, or pay for my friend’s lunch, or move into a better apartment. It was freeing, literally and figuratively.

I want all of my friends and loved ones to feel that. If I had the means, I would personally pay off my friends’ loans so they could feel that. I never want someone I love to be making the choice between getting marginally ahead on their student loans and getting health insurance, or reliable transportation, or a retirement account. I never want anyone to make that choice. I got incredibly lucky, and was able to pay off my loans. It doesn’t diminish my luck, or my hard work, or anything about my own experiences if someone else is spared some of the pain I went through.

The only questions I still have about Warren’s plans are about the larger structures—what are we going to do about the interest rate for student loans? How are we going to keep the next few years of students out of the pain of student debt while we figure things out? How will we prevent universities and lending agencies from simply keeping the same ridiculous prices and rates while now getting paid off by the government instead of broke graduates? How are we going to address the general inequality between the cost of education and the wages of jobs outside of education?

All of these questions are important, and need to be answered in order to truly rehabilitate the system. But the fact that we don’t have answers for these questions doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do what we can to address the people that are suffering now. If you have a patient with internal bleeding you need to address the cause of the bleeding, but you also need to do some blood transfusions in the meantime so that the patient stays alive. You’re not “wasting” your energy or time by doing those blood transfusions—you’re giving yourself time to address the root cause.

So speaking on behalf of (hopefully) most of the people who have paid off their student loans: please, please forgive the student loans of those that still have them. Please make it possible for an entire generation to actually engage with the economy, and the world around them.

Please make the cycle of suffering stop.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is a “Batman slapping Robin” meme, where Robin is saying “Paying off other people’s debts is a slap—” and Batman is interrupting, saying “No THIS is a slap!”