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Student loans, poverty...all the things.

by Ashley Heidebrecht, MSW, Education and Content Manager, Institute Fellow


I didn't really believe that student loans were going to be placed in forbearance and interest reduced to zero. But, this morning I logged on to check my status, and sure enough it's true. I had a big message bar waiting for me stating that my loans are in forbearance until November 2020 with no interest.

I cannot express how significant that is. My husband has a good paying, stable job. He is an account manager in the trucking industry. His job is safe even in this pandemic, and he is able to cover our housing, groceries, and most expenses. I, however, make very little money. It's kind of just the nature of the work that I do (and I have a lot of thoughts on that, but that's another discussion). Even at the lowest repayment schedule, my student loan payment for my Master’s degree is half of what I make in a month, and with that repayment schedule, because it's what I can afford, my loan will essentially double because of the accumulated interest. To not have to make that payment means I can begin to save, and honestly, I can purchase some things for myself that I really want. If I feel such a weight lifted, I cannot imagine the feeling so many others are feeling. There are millions of people without enough income to cover their basic needs, and many of those people also have student loans.

Often when the topic of student loans is discussed, the arguments of “Well, choose a career that pays better”, or “You shouldn’t have gone to college. There are good paying jobs that don’t require a college degree”, are brought up. These common arguments are occurring simultaneously with the common argument concerning those who live in poverty and work low-wage jobs like food service, janitorial work, retail, etc.: “Why don’t you go get a better paying job? Why do you stay in entry level work? Why not reach higher? Why not get the education for a better job?”

Do you see how ridiculous that is?

These argument are scapegoat arguments; ones that equate certain careers and jobs and academic ambitions to an error in judgement on the part of the individual, thereby justifying any resulting hardship, and allowing society to ignore the bigger questions and issues surrounding philosophies about what constitutes valuable work, cost of living, and the devaluation of workers in pursuit of the benefits of capitalism for the few. We use these flawed arguments to justify the vast and ever-growing income disparities, and as a way to demonstrate that a person is deserving of their poverty, no matter the circumstances of that poverty.

For some, student loans are the reason they are in poverty or experiencing financial hardship, for others, the circumstances may be different. No matter the circumstance though, millions of people every day are struggling just to meet the minimum of what they need to survive, let alone live comfortably. Everyone should be able to live comfortably. To me, that is a basic human right. No one should be covering only barely what they need to survive. EVERYONE should be able to access things/activities that bring them joy and comfort. Everyone has the right to comfort. We need to move past the idea that just the basic things a person needs to survive are what they are entitled to (though some people don’t even believe that much), and move to the belief that everyone is entitled to comfort, happiness, joy. Everyone deserves to thrive.

And that is a big point of bias regarding poverty. There is this belief that people in poverty for some reason don't have the right to comfort or things that bring them joy. And why is that? Well, because we still believe that poverty is a moral failing, and of course, immoral people don't deserve comfort and joy. We like to pass a lot of judgement on who should be doing what. We present many arguments that equate financial hardship to an error in judgement or personal failing, and really those arguments don’t serve to address any issue; they only operate as a way for us to throw our hands up and absolve us of any responsibility to address anything, because if it’s a personal failing, then it’s all on the individual.

The National forbearance for student loans is undoubtedly going to be a huge source of relief for so many. It could literally be the difference between life and death for many people, and that is completely insane. No one, I repeat, NO ONE, should be in that situation, no matter their line of work or education level. We must, as a society, stop viewing poverty as an individual issue. We must know, and remember, that poverty was created, and is carefully maintained, and we all play a role in that maintenance to an extent, sometimes fully by choice, and sometimes by necessity. There is so much that we can do to change the many systems that were carefully crafted to ensure economic disparities. Right now, funds have been made available. This National forbearance is proof that there is significant capacity for relief regarding student loans, and possibly capacity for reform in the cost of higher education in general. The stimulus checks and small business loans, although many people are excluded due to immigration status, are proof that there is significant capacity for reform regarding federal minimum wage requirements. And, the exponentially higher level of funds being given to large corporations with little to no oversight is proof that the wealthy are still considered the most virtuous and most deserving.

And so, we have a long way to go, but this forbearance is big for me and bigger for many others, and so I’ll gladly take it. But this should be only the beginning of relief. It is now being demonstrated that relief is possible, and now the conversation needs to continue. But, if we’re going to do this, really do this, really reform the student loan system, really make permanent changes in wages and economic disparities, then we’ve got to dig down to the root. We’ve got to address our beliefs and our bias, and that is 100% something all of us can do.

For more on poverty, check out our webinar Poverty: Barriers and Stigma.

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