How We Can Truly Repay Our Frontline Health Workers: Clear Their Debts
By Alissa Quart, Astra Taylor, and Brittany M. Powell
Photos by Bayete Ross Smith and Brittany M Powell for EHRP and The Guardian
Every day at 7pm, New Yorkers have cheered, applauded and banged pots and pans for frontline workers. One of those they have cheered for is Shana-Kay Henry, a physician assistant in the city, who, like thousands of others, is praised as a hero for her brave caretaking efforts during the pandemic.
In her case, Henry worked as an ER physician assistant, caring for Covid-19 patients. What the applauding masses may not know about her and many others like her, though, is her other affliction: student debt.
Henry owes $223,000 for her education, including a master’s degree from Touro College School of Health Sciences, amassed in pursuit of her dream of a medical career and of becoming a “mentor and advocate for women’s health”.
Due to her outstanding student loans, Henry cannot afford to purchase a home and currently resides with one of her parents. She spends roughly 30% of her salary on her student loan payments, forcing her to work even longer hours.
This makes her “exhausted and on my days off all I want to do is rest”, says Henry. It also gives her “So much anxiety and fear that I will be trapped with the burden of student debt for a lifetime.”
Today, many Americans laud the valiance of first responders. (We define first responders to include everyone from physician assistants, like Henry, to the postal workers delivering our mail.) But after the applause, we should take care of the load we can actually help with – their student debt.
The answer is simple: student loan forgiveness. Some Democrats have recognized the double sacrifice of frontline workers in particular—they are simultaneously risking their health and yet still in debt. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has recently created a proposal to offer these workers free education. But not loan cancellation.
Photos by Garrett Maclean and Arlene Mejorado for EHRP and the Guardian
Yet loan cancellation is what they, like all student debtors, desperately need. The workers now keeping us afloat are often already swimming in student debt. It’s estimated that 70% of American nurses, for instance, leave their nursing programs with between $40,000 and $50,000 of debt.
To illustrate this hardship, we have asked photographers around the country to take portraits of these real life frontline heroes, all holding up signs revealing their student debt numbers. These emergency workers epitomize the larger student debt crisis and the urgent need to cancel all $1.7 trillion dollars of student debt this country currently holds.
What are the obstacles to debt relief? For starters, the line is constantly drawn in this society between deserving and undeserving borrowers. While the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, has recently referred to newly distressed companies as “fallen angels”, debtors such as these doctors, nurses and physician assistants are not compared to the divine, even if they could be. They are rarely shown mercy. Instead, they are penalized for falling behind on payments. The shame and stigma obscure a more fundamental truth: most people are not in debt because they live beyond their means, but rather because they have been denied the means to live.
Photos by Garrett Maclean and Brittany M. Powell for EHRP and the Guardian
The Democrats’ Heroes Act could have been that “means to live” for many. At first, the act offered $10,000 of federal student loan cancellation for each of the nation’s 44 million borrowers. Within 48 hours, however, citing cost concerns, Democratic party leaders scaled back the proposal, narrowing relief to those who were “economically distressed” before Covid-19 hit. The revised plan excluded 25 million borrowers, including countless doctors and nurses now on the frontlines, and scores of essential workers. The respiratory therapists paying thousands a year for their student debt and the grocery store clerk paying $25 a month on a loan for community college alike won’t see a penny of relief. In addition, if a business owner has defaulted on their federal student loans, they are ineligible for the paycheck protection program’s business aid.
Part of what makes this debt load immoral is the contrast with the lives of the richest. Many large, publicly traded companies have received PPP funds without any struggle. America’s 600 or so billionaires have seen their fortunes explode during the coronavirus. Some rich Americans are part of the only class of debtor that has been granted government relief, the corporate debtors who receive generous reprieves with few conditions attached.
Photo by Nina Robinson/EHRP and The Guardian
It is the generous souls photographed here, along with tens of millions of struggling borrowers, who desperately need and deserve debt relief. The benefits of helping them would be legion. One recent study, for example, showed that discharging student loans increased people’s ability to move, find new jobs, pay down other debts and earn additional income. In addition, debt relief would help with the huge financial gap between black women and, say, white men. Black women are the group most laden with student debt overall, and women hold a shocking two-thirds of student loans. In 2020, black graduates have been found to have $25,000 more student debt upon graduation than their white counterparts. First responder student debtors are no exception to this arithmetic.
Photos by Arlene Mejorado and Nina Robinson for EHRP and the Guardian
Debt cancellation would do more than just help borrowers like these frontline workers. Economists including Stephanie Kelton and Marshall Steinbaum have shown it would be an effective stimulus, potentially boosting the economy by over $108 billion a year according to research supported by the Levy Institute.
As Covid-19 afflicts the economy, the case for debt relief is stronger than ever. Resident physicians like Emmanuel Adomfeh in New York City or nurses like Briana McNamara in Minneapolis, who are foot soldiers in the battle against Covid-19, shouldn’t be crushed by $365,000 and $44,025 worth of student debt, respectively.
To make it happen, debtors will need to organize. In February the Debt Collective, which Astra Taylor, a co-author of this piece, co-founded, launched a student loan strike to demand full student debt cancellation for all 45 million borrowers. In June, activists associated with the Movement for Black Lives called for student debt cancellation along with cancelling rent, medical debt, and more. The weeks of protests against police violence have shown us that people are rising up, unwilling to take the status quo of debt and fear any more.
“I believe debt is a form of burden and ‘imprisonment’,” the physician assistant Henry says. “As medical professionals, we are constantly worried about it and it brings guilt and shame that are unnecessary and prevents us from living a fulfilled life.”
For Henry and the others, debt forgiveness should be arriving sooner rather than later, finally getting rid a weight that plagues us, that unlike the pandemic, is readily cured.
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of six books, most recently Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.
Astra Taylor is a writer, organizer, and documentarian. Her books include the American Book Award winner The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age and Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Her most recent film is What Is Democracy?
Brittany M. Powell is a photographer, multimedia artist, and educator working in central Vermont. She spent more than a decade as a freelance documentary and editorial photographer in San Francisco, CA before moving to New England. Her work focuses on income inequality, identity, and class divides across America.
Co-published with The Guardian.