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interviews

As Long as You are Ashamed of Your Debt

by Melissa Byrne
September 18, 2020

This interview with Melissa Byrne, a political and community organizer, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Melissa | I have been doing work around free college and canceling student debt for about ten years now. I don't get paid for it unless I am working on a campaign. It has been a labor of taking something that impacted me on a personal level and channeling that energy into a big issue. As much as it hurt me as a person, I knew that I wasn't alone. There are 46 million Americans that have student loan debt, and our pain wasn't being taken seriously.

I grew up in a single-parent, working-class family. When I started college, I was just told to sign on the dotted line. I couldn't comprehend the degree to which I was signing my life away with all that debt. 

A lot of my peers didn't have debt, so I felt a shame attached to it. Even very progressive people would ask me, in a very judgemental tone, "you have how much debt?" But I just didn't have a free choice. This was my only option. This is just what it was.

frank | Yeah. There is a lot of undue shame attached to debt.

Definitely. I had a shift in the way I thought about my debt about 10 years ago. I was working on a campaign, and I had to go with my boss to an early morning meeting where a famous advocate was speaking. There were about 20 of us sitting around a big table. The guest speaker asked people to raise their hand if they had student loan debt. I was the youngest person there, and the only one to raise my hand. And then he asks, "Well, how much debt do you have?"  "I'm not telling," I said.

He responded by saying, "Well, as long as you're ashamed of your debt, the banks have all the power."

He asked again and I said half the amount, because, let's be real, shame is really hard to overcome. But I left that meeting with this realization that it is not my fault that I have student loan debt. This wasn’t a personal failing, this was a societal failing. And I left feeling like, oh, I'm going to solve this issue. And the person that put me on the spot was Reverend Jesse Jackson.

What are you seeking politically?

I want student loan debt to be cancelled, and I want to move towards working on making college free going forward. It's two problems at once. We need to cancel the $1.7 trillion outstanding in student loan debt, and we have to make sure that there's a path forward so that students are not harmed by student loan debt again. 

Ideally, as a country, people should be able to obtain whatever skills they need to be able to do the work that brings them joy and care for their family. Higher education should not be an intergenerational wealth transfer. Poor people and working-class people should not be taxed for their ambition. 

Student loan debt takes away the economic benefit of higher education. The income that you make with your skill is being channeled into paying off a loan as opposed to being channeled into your savings. Or buying a home. Or starting a business. Or caring for your family, having kids. Or just living without dread.

It's really bad, but it doesn't have to be this way. We have this burden because Reagan pulled funding out of higher education. We are here because education, a lot of the time, has been used to preserve wealth and power. People with privilege don't want a free market for their kids to compete with, they want to preserve access.

When we say higher education, it doesn't just mean getting a fancy liberal arts degree, it means making sure that community colleges and four-year colleges are set up for good partnerships with building trades. You go in, you get an associate’s degree, and you have a pathway into the carpenter's union or IBW.

You advocate for widespread debt cancellation for everybody rather than a targeted approach. Why? 

I think one thing to remember is that nobody who is wealthy takes out debt for school - their wealthy parents pay for it. Consider somebody who had to take out about $300,000 for dental school. Sure they might be making $200,000 a year as a dentist, but $300,000 of debt at a 5% interest rate can hinder them -- it means they can't dedicate one day a week to providing free care. I've talked to dentists in this exact situation. They want to expand their services to the most vulnerable, but when they have $2,000 a month in student loan payments, they need the money coming in.

It's important to get rid of it all because we structured the system incorrectly. That's the problem.

When you start drawing lines on who's worthy of debt forgiveness, you then get enemies of any change whatsoever. I advocate for canceling all student loan debt because it's both an ideological commitment to the idea that the loan itself is wrong, as well as taking away all the pain points in actually winning this policy battle.

What is the pushback that you hear the most? Do Democrats and Republicans have similar aversions to debt forgiveness?

You have this one strain of people, if you look at the work of Sandy Baum, for example, who are aghast at this idea that a rich person could potentially benefit. They miss the whole point. We don’t say that rich kids can't go to your public high school.

And right now, the federal government subsidizes private colleges in all of these different ways. Harvard receives around $60,000 per year per student in local, state, and federal subsidies. That means the billionaire's kid at Harvard is getting more federal support for their education than someone who goes to UMass, which receives around $12,000 a year in subsidies. 

As someone who worked on both Bernie campaigns, why do you think it's important now that people shift over their support to Vice President Biden?

For one thing, it was really great seeing Bernie move from only supporting interest rate reduction in 2016 to full cancellation in 2020. Even in that short four year time period, we were able to really move the marker on this topic.

As of right now with Vice President Biden, he's supporting a couple of different forms of student loan forgiveness. He uses the phrase forgiveness, I use the word cancellation, but it gets us to the same point. I'm trying not to argue over words and focus on the bigger outcomes. We need him to win, so we can do the coalition work and the organizing work we need to do to get it all the way done.

Do you think you can get there with Biden if he is elected?

He is already 80% there. We are starting from a good place. We don't have to convince him of the concept, now it's just negotiating over details.

Are there any state or hyperlocal policies that we should be paying attention to?

New York state has the Excelsior scholars and, of course, because it's Cuomo, it was done in such a convoluted way. But it has proved the concept that people want free college, of course, they do. New Mexico is experimenting with a free college program. New Jersey is doing free community college and has started to look towards some parts of free college

States are moving on it. We're at the tipping point where we need a unified federal policy on it.

There hasn't been as much on the cancellation side. Right now, all federal loans paused. They are set to end on January 1st with a cliff. They were originally set to end on September 30th, but I think the Trump administration realized it would be really bad to have people make their first loan payments in the month before the election. I expect borrowers to be fucked if he wins reelection and payments to resume on January 1st. 

Do you think, culturally, there is an outsized emphasis placed on higher education as a necessary means of succeeding?

I think the danger is that that can be used as an excuse to not match people to the college that's right for them. Everybody should be able to go into the higher education program that's right for them, without stigma and without being coerced into predatory for-profit programs.

A big part of higher education is the network you get out of it - it's the friends, it's the community, it's the exposure to ideas outside of where you are from. As a society, we need to get back to a place where we value education. We need to understand that it's part of what allows you to be mobile and to live life to the fullest. 

But I also don't think higher education should ever be something that is seen as a marker of you being better than somebody else because you have a degree. But that is also a problem with capitalism in general. So those are bigger structural problems that we have to solve as well.