How We Can Truly Repay Our Frontline Health Workers: Clear Their Debts
Photos by Garrett Maclean and Arlene Mejorado for EHRP and the Guardian

How We Can Truly Repay Our Frontline Health Workers: Clear Their Debts

By Alissa Quart, Astra Taylor, and Brittany M. Powell

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Shana-Kay Henry

Debt: $223,000
Location: New York City
Professional title: Physicians Assistant
Education: Masters in Physician Assistant Study

“[My debt] doesn’t allow time for growth in the way I desire as well … This debt doesn’t allow me to have this freedom and it often becomes a burden that I worry about.”

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Beth Wagner

Debt: $153,000
Location: Montpelier, VT
Professional title: Physician (Hospitalist)
Education: Doctor of Osteopathy

“We are putting our lives on the line for this pandemic … The least they could do would be to forgive the debt of the people working to keep Americans alive … or at a minimum remove the interest on student loans.”

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.

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Susan John

Debt: $149,000
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Professional title: Medical doctor
Education: Doctor of medicine

“I think my education was worth it. I wake up every day with a sense of purpose … But I think the price is too high. It’s not just the dollar amount which adds to it. It’s also the price you pay in stress, and anxiety and depression.”

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Nicole Lucero

Debt: $35,686.66
Location: Ontario, California
Professional title: Respiratory therapist
Education: Associates degree (two-year program)

“Since I do have a lot of debt I’ve been cautious to go back to school. I have two kids as well, and my goal has always been to be able to provide for them and take care of them … I think respiratory therapists are unsung heroes in a way … We are the ones putting tubes down patients’ throats, we are the ones suctioning fluid out of their lungs.”

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.

“Most people are not in debt because they live beyond their means, but rather because they have been denied the means to live.”

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.

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Jazze Williams

Debt: $60,000
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Professional title: Nurse assistant
Education: BA in healthcare administration, currently in school for BS in nursing

“The risk is catching it… and not only catching it, it’s also the mental strain from all of the things I’ve seen, and the choices that we have to make now… even as far as CPR. If someone has Covid, and they are dying, we are not giving CPR. Because you have to think about it – if I am getting on top of you, compressing, whatever you have, I am getting it. It’s like, having to make choices, like saving your life vs saving someone else’s. It’s so sad.”

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Jennifer Maynard

Debt: $61,018.67
Location: New Hampshire
Professional title: Family nurse practitioner
Education: BS and MSN

“I work in a hospital so I leave work each day not knowing what I’ve been exposed to. The hospital I work in does their best to screen patients for Covid-19 and mitigate risk, but the fact is that testing is not particularly accurate yet and there is so much we don’t understand about this disease. In an attempt to conserve PPE, we use it longer than it is designed for at work. I go home to elderly parents and a seven-year-old child and cross my fingers that I am not bringing anything home to them. Because my child’s school is closed, I had to put her in a daycare – increasing her personal risk of contracting the disease, as well as increasing the risk to my family when she comes home each day.”

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.

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Molly Dolan

Debt: $60,000
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Professional title: RN/PHN
Education: Masters in Physician Assistant Study

“We wear surgical masks and goggles but are in non-traditional settings, such as encampments or transit stations … A guy OD’d in an alley when we were out. We administered Narcan and a fellow nurse had to do rescue breathing. He came to, but projectile vomited. Needless to say, we were all exposed to his fluids … I support debt forgiveness, especially with the risks of exposure to Covid-19 or when working with underserved populations. I do not pay down my debt. I try to not think about it. It causes me huge anxiety.”

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.

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Lucia Perez

Debt: $27,359
Location: El Monte, California
Professional title: Hospital receptionist
Education: Currently earning a nursing degree (RVN)

“Because I am first-generation, I’m already struggling as it is. It took me until I was 27 to feel brave enough to take on the debt required to go to school. I’ve been wanting to be a nurse since I was 18. It took me so long to look past it. Other people have it much easier than first-generations. I get stressed because I worry I won’t even make enough to be able to pay my debt. I hope this debt is worth it, and I can make enough.”

How we can truly repay our frontline health workers: clear their debts

Briana McNamara

Debt: $44,025
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Professional title: RN
Education: BS in nursing

“As a hospice nurse I am constantly walking into ever-evolving situations with patients, families and a lot of different facilities. I carry a lot of stress as I can go into as many as six different facilities full of the most vulnerable populations every day. I carry with me the nagging possibility that even despite stringent PPE guidelines (ever changing and not necessarily for the better) I may unknowingly transmit this virus to my patients or other residents. Every day I talk to my dying patients and their families and knowing that they can’t see each other; hearing the despair in a son’s voice because he hasn’t seen his mom since February and can’t until they are actively dying. Many facilities will only allow a visitor in when a patient is no longer responsive and on death’s door… It is soul crushing.”

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.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Alissa Quart is the author of five books of nonfiction including the acclaimed Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, now out in paperback, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America and Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. She built the non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project with the late Barbara Ehrenreich: she has run it for close to a decade. She is also the author of two books of poetry Monetized and Thoughts and Prayers, and has written for many publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and TIME. She has produced films and the show “Going for Broke,” centering on EHRP’s lower income contributors. Her awards include an Emmy, an SPJ Award, a Columbia Journalism School Alumna of the Year Award, a Nieman Fellowship, and a National Press Club commendation. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.

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