Years ago, a troubled co-op board in Harlem rented me an apartment that was uninhabitable.
I wrote a few letters, stopped people in the laundry room, and tried to bargain kindly, until finally I went downtown to a courthouse. The woman who spoke to me was harried and tired. She asked three questions before concluding I had no rights in the matter. She shouted, “Next!”
Out of frustration, not willfulness, I stayed put. I kept talking. My eyes began to tear, then brim, like some damsel crashing a wedding with a gun.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” the woman sighed. “You wanna know what to do? I’ll tell you what to do.”
I waited. What secret did she know?
“You stop paying,” she said. “You open an escrow account. You know what escrow is, you ever heard of escrow?” I nodded even though I it was probably just a word I’d overheard in an elevator once. “If you put your payments in an escrow account, it shows you’re not a deadbeat. You lose if you look like a deadbeat.” I agreed. Wholeheartedly.
The process involved other things—letters, forms, phone calls—yet within two months, the co-op board apologized and gave me a much larger apartment for the same price. To this day that apartment remains my most prized and beloved New York home. It offered such space, such sunlight. Who knew you could fight and win?
But let’s consider other forms of antagonism for a moment. If you were, say, in an enclosed room with a vicious bear—or if a crazed woman with smeared lipstick axed her way through a door, after dismembering a host of others, and hissed, “Here’sssssss Sallie!”—I’m willing to bet you’d respond. Maybe you’d even grope around, look for something heavy. Something that would hurt.
I, too, have been a member of the paralyzed class for decades. Because my mother was a single mother and never entirely managed her money well, I paid for 90 percent of my education myself and signed numerous contracts, much like many of you, when I was only a teenager. In the end, my undergraduate and graduate loans combined totaled $60,000, which was a fairly high amount for my generation. I finished school in 1999. After a very positive period in my career, I hit a very low period. By 2007, my loans had reached 80K even though I had been paying $400 a month. Since then, I’ve been paying $800 a month and currently owe 60K.
I turn 40 this month.
My nephew, a recent graduate from George Washington University, owes $80,000 at an interest rate of 10 percent. At 22, he now lives with his parents, sleeps in his childhood bedroom, and works full-time as a customer representative in a call center at one of the few thriving companies in our hometown. His plan is to live with his parents and send all of the money he makes after taxes to Citibank, his lender. “It’ll take a few years,” he says, exhaling chain smoke.
“How many?” I ask.
“I don’t know, a few.”
Just to give you a sense of how difficult it is to manage that level of debt, consider my undergraduate loans: they were a mere $20,000, albeit with an interest rate of 9 percent. (These were government loans, by the way, not private.) My checking account has a feature in which I can see the total amount I’ve paid a given payee. Since 1997 I’ve paid Sallie Mae $43,390 on that loan. The loan’s current balance: $18,023.
In hindsight, I certainly could’ve made some better financial decisions in my twenties and thirties. Yet I speak to you from the other side of time’s vast ocean: You will have high periods, sometimes even delusional periods—in which the streets seem paved with glitter—and also low periods in which you may not be able to pay (or if you can pay, it will be interest only). If you have even one single low period, especially in your twenties, your lenders will feed off of you for longer than you ever feared, and then some.
But the debt and its initial numbers aren’t really the problem, nor are the myriad numbers that appear long later. What’s unnerving is the infinite ways that those numbers will creep into your psyche, stunt your growth, pierce your positivity, and taint every true desire and wish: paralysis. You can't take risks, or leaps of faith. Your imagination will surely suffer, as its fodder and fuel is hope.
We are a culture ruled by money, yet there has always been a small minority, mainly populated by the young, who still possess the optimism and character to seek out personal meaning in everything they do. You elected a black president. You demanded gay marriage exist and be acknowledged. Marijuana is increasingly legal. All of this has happened since a younger, college-educated generation started voting. You also, incidentally, know how to Tweet and Facebook the shit out of what you believe in.
Believe it or not, you are far more empowered than any Wall Street Worker or Sad Sallie with an axe. The problem is: You don’t know it.
James Baldwin once wrote:
I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.
Why I mention Baldwin exactly, I don’t know—maybe because I was thinking of Harlem, to which he was a native son, or maybe because the student loan issue, for all intents and purposes, is a Civil Rights issue. It’s about keeping one class of people permanently disenfranchised while others, mainly investors, continue to profit enormously—and the government looks away.
Malcolm Harris, someone you should know and follow, explains this phenomena well and concludes in his excellent article in the Boston Review:
Congress nibbling the edge of the problem may give the public the impression that someone is looking out for them, but when it comes to student loans, there’s not a single piece of legislation that would have a meaningful impact on the most important number: the large and rapidly increasing amount debtors will have pay… Assuming current rates of repayment and issuance (which is, admittedly, low-balling it), the $1 trillion outstanding total will double within a decade. And short of suicide, expatriation, or revolt, there’s not much 37 million American student debtors and counting can do about it.
Suicide? No thanks. Expatriation? That’s not awful, by any means, but it won’t suit everyone. So many conjugations to memorize! You wanna know what to do? I’ll tell you what to do. How about... revolt?
If there are 37 million borrowers and each of you makes an average payment of $100 a month, a low estimation for sure, that means collectively you’re paying $3.7 billion a month. Do you have any idea how much of a financial punch you could wield?
And exactly what kind of revolt am I suggesting? A fairly civilized revolt, one in which you withhold your payments: put them in an escrow account, possibly with a non-American bank. A petition must be devised, which like a ransom note should have clear, achievable demands. Universal forgiveness does not sound wise or entirely responsible—and you want to underscore that you will pay under the right conditions. Elizabeth Warren’s plan, which involves setting most student loan interest rates at 0.75 percent, is a start. Consolidated loans and private loans should also be emphasized, as they are the weightier, meaner ones. No lender should be able to lock you into something that you can’t ever refinance. A cap should be offered so that your debt cannot exponentially multiply and all changes should be permanent, not temporary.
Of the government-backed variety, $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt looms, and of the private variety, an equally large number rises. Again, think of how much money you represent to the government, and to the economy in general. You’re not the victim. You’re the fire-breathing dragon they’ve unleashed on themselves, and this troubled co-op board of ours, otherwise known as Congress, needs to know that time is of the essence. Your debts are multiplying every minute, every day.
I won’t lie to you, though: Sad Sallie and the rest will surely wave their bloody axes. They’ll leave hissing messages, maybe even some blood stains on your door. It’ll take an army of millions to fight them off. It'll take overwhelming courage to even enlist. I myself have paid over $60,000 in student-loan interest, to maintain an amazing credit score, yet I am still willing to take the plunge. For you.
Just tell me when and where. January 1, 2014?
Previously: Summer Invites and the Word "Yes"
Photo via zingbot/flickr.