Born Poor, Stay Poor: What My $120,000 Student Debt Says About Class in the US
I owe $120,000 to the American government, which I accrued chasing the American dream. Yes, I am yet another person who was taken in by the predatory lending practices of student loans.
The story of my education is classically American: problematic student is deemed talented, teacher with heart goes out of his way to invest in the student, turns out the student’s family is struggling financially. Teacher pays for testing fees, student excels on state test revealing they weren’t stupid after all – they were just broke, they were just working, they were just prioritizing their family. College accepts and welcomes student despite their checkered past, student reveals themself to be something of a savant, graduates summa cum laude, goes on to study at an Ivy League school, all ends happily ever after.
Well, except for the debt. The debt I will carry with me for ever, like a shadow that informs all my decisions and is only escapable at night, when I sleep.
If I sound bitter, it’s because, to some extent, I am. Not for my sake –I had to be all but coerced into going to college – but for the sake of my parents and grandparents, who put so much desperate effort into attempting to build a better life for us.
I am the second person in my family who tried to, in some way, better our lot through prayer and northern relocation. In the 1960s, my mother’s father moved his family from Leeds, Alabama, to Nashville, Tennessee, hoping to “make it” as a country music songwriter.
Before college, I had hardly left the area along the Tennessee and Kentucky border. One of the few times I did leave was during my parents’ divorce, when my sister and I were sent to my mother’s family for a while, down in Alabama.
There, we discovered that my extended family lived in partially collapsed houses. We ran from half-dead dogs down dirt streets. We waded into knee-high septic runoff. We hunkered down in a trailer during tornadoes only for the wind to lift us up, up, and then lower us, just as gently, back on to the cement blocks from which we rose. This was the life my grandfather, Fred Lehner, had escaped from.
Fred wasn’t delusional in his initial pursuit of music. Yes, he was young. And, yes, he had a family to look after. But he also knew just about everyone who made country music their business. He had recordings of Tammy Wynette singing a full album of his original songs. In Nashville, he thought, he would catch his big break.
He did, to some extent. He had a few songs top the charts in the 1980s. My favorite is a ballad called Home, sung by Joe Diffie. It’s about the heartbreak of leaving the country for the city in search of a better life.
Though my grandfather’s dream began to materialize, money never did. He learned the hard way that artistic careers are tailored for the rich. While he escaped the trailers and septic floods, he never quite made it past our ancestral curse of low wages. He landed in a cramped apartment complex outside of Nashville, where the water was constantly shut off and the electricity rigged. My grandfather could not support my grandmother, or his three children. His depression broke him, and he fell into the trap of alcoholism. For many years, he could not climb out.
In a way, I was probably fated from birth to leave the south in a final attempt to complete my grandfather’s journey. I became the first person in my mother’s family to go to college. But now, 10 years later, as I remain mired in debt, I am beginning to think that to be born poor is to remain poor.
The illusion of meritocracy is a seductive one, but what happens to one generation is fated to happen to the next.
Like my grandfather the songwriter, I only ever had one talent, and it was the ability to hold on to, and examine, heartbreak. After years of close study, I have one conclusion: the only thing heartbreak is good for is telling stories. Heartbreak doesn’t come with a paycheck.
I refused to fly to college. I was scared of airplanes. I didn’t trust them to stay up. My dad drove me to my first week of classes in Burlington, Vermont – an 18-hour road trip. Later that year, on my way home for Christmas, after nervously educating myself on aeronautics and the physics of wind formation, I flew for the first time.
I was lucky that I had a middle seat. I was tucked snugly between two older gentlemen traveling together on a business trip. I’m embarrassed to tell you that, as we took off into the sky, I cried. No amount of education can protect you from the emotional shock of experiencing the previously unimaginable.
Like bowling alley bumpers, the two older men helped me stay in place. One let me take a nip of Jack, and the other held my hand as he told me about his daughter. Like me, she was a first-generation college student who went in search of something better.
Many Americans who are the first in their families to get a degree take on extreme debt at a young age in pursuit of the elusive, much mythologized American dream. They often do so on the advice of their family.
This is my story, too. Like my grandfather, I have “made it” without “making it”. I have completed my graduate studies in writing at an Ivy League. I was awarded many scholarships. I was given fellowships. I went to school on a Pell grant and at 25 I began to teach undergraduate classes at Columbia. At 27, I became a New York Times-bestselling editor at a big five publisher, which is almost unheard of. At 28, I have a novel coming out that people are “anticipating”.
I have been broke through it all.
What has become depressingly apparent to me is that over time, the idea of the American dream has been leveraged by profiteers to exploit the workers it’s meant to incentivize. Now the pursuit of a modicum of financial security – a mere reprieve from a paycheck-to-paycheck life – is so elusive that the quest for stability has replaced the search for fame and fortune.
The American dream has been sold and replaced with a Ponzi scheme meant to benefit the investor class. College degrees, once a pinnacle of long-term investment and self-betterment, increasingly look like the multi-level-marketing vitamin supplements hoarded in the back of your mother’s fridge. Predatory interest rates insure a lifetime of payment, which in turn prevents class mobility and enforces the limitations of their birth.
If you really sit with the facts, the American education system has become a way of forcing lower-class citizens into a form of indentured servitude. The Pulitzer-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson is right: behind the illusion of meritocracy, the US runs on a system of caste which she defines as “an artificial, arbitrary graded ranking of human value, the underlying infrastructure of a society’s divisions”.
Arriving home from my first flight, I was shocked at just how changed things were, not with home, but with me. I no longer fit seamlessly into the place of my birth. My cousins could smell it on me: the otherness. My “uppityness”, they called it. When I spoke they alluded to images in the Bible, as if I hadn’t studied it in Sunday school right alongside them. They would say: “Ah, the spoiled lamb has thoughts.” Or: “We see the prodigal son has conditions for his return.”
When I spoke of education, they rolled their eyes, and rightfully so. In college I was introduced to the language of logic and pedagogy, history and ethics, morality and modern philosophies – each of these things the enemy of my family’s insistence on “common sense”. Common sense says that if things are wrong, they are wrong, no matter how fancy the words used to express it. You know the wrongness in your gut. Common sense takes in not the ideal, but reality.
If you call out of your workplace because you’re sick, it’s “common sense” that you will be reprimanded, or fired. Not because the reprimand is necessarily just – rather because it’s known that capitalists are punitive, work comes before personhood, and workers do not have the power to demand otherwise, unless they’re unionized. If one loses their job, they lose their apartment, and thus their life.
My family’s lack of interest in “learned thinking” was justified, I believe. The highly educated have a habit of using their education not as a weapon for the common good, but rather as a blunt instrument used to bludgeon workers into unlivable circumstances. The language of education is the language of an elite class, and it has – in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations – been used to justify much suffering. It is used this way still.
I imagine it’s disorienting to hear the voice of your exploiter come out of your child’s mouth. They said I had lost my common sense, and they were right. I had entered into an imaginative place inconceivable to them, one where I dreamed of better things for them, and for me.
And yet. Despite the meteoric social mobility I have been afforded, I have not yet fully passed on to the other side of the curtain. I am now part of a nebulous group of educated workers who have managed to make a higher yearly salary than their parents, yet are also saddled with more debt than that salary can cover. I’ve been educated in the language and methodologies used to exploit working people, and yet my finances don’t look all that different from those before me.
The difference between my parents, grandparents, and me is that I know there is a better world out there – but it is not a world that is afforded to us.
I find myself returning to the same themes my grandfather explored in his art in my own writing. I’m often fixated on homes that can never fully be returned to, and the heartbreak of having risked everything in that ancestral search for “a better life” only to come up short.
I am realizing that no amount of education can replace what my parents took as a given: it is common sense that, in America, our family is fated to be stuck in our caste for ever.
To me, a simple Zillow search was not about the home itself, it was about what the home symbolized: a place my mother could retreat to instead of becoming homeless, a place my father could go when he could no longer do the backbreaking labor of his trade, a clean place for my grandmother to live should she need it, so that I could feed her, and she wouldn’t be judged for her reliance on subsidized programs such as Meals on Wheels.
More than anything, a home symbolized a future. It represented a place where my partner and I could have children, and those children could know a stability I had not.
Perhaps it is no surprise that as rising inequality fractures our nation further, we are seeing the same inequality introduced into public and private education systems. With the rise of charter schools across the nation, the further segregation of the richest classes from the lowest classes is being cemented and the path to financial stability is becoming harder and harder to access for those who were not born on it.
My grandfather, in the end, placed the blame fully on himself for not “making it”. He thought he was a crackup. An alcoholic who, when he got sober, gave up music to become a weigh-station employee, measuring shipments destined to go to places he could only dream of. He didn’t have much empathy for himself, and I have inherited his tendency. When I think of myself as I was 10 years ago, I can see that yes, I was blinded by fantasy. I lost my common sense. I was so desperate for things to work out for my family that I would do anything, including buying into a mythology all rural towns cling to: my “talent” would help me “make it out”.
I am no longer concerned with “making it”. Given the debt I have accrued and the elders I am responsible for, it is almost impossible that I will ever “make it” financially. I’ve regained my capacity for common sense. I am now a (very broke) novelist, which means I make my living by noticing.
This is what I have noticed: my cohort of debtors who signed on for a college education after 1995, and took on the brunt of their loans themselves without the downpayment of a parent or family member, are looking at 20- to 30-year repayment plans without bankruptcy as an option. We are beginning to see the effects of this burden in public life. Birth rates have declined in the US, as has home ownership.
As student loan payments resume, millions of student borrowers will be denied market corrections businesses are often afforded. Psychological precarity will only grow. The Department of Education, which recently posted the suicide prevention hotline to its Twitter account, is aware of this looming public health crisis. All of us who have faced financial difficulty are aware of the despondency it creates.
The psychological tolls of hopelessness last for more than one lifetime. What capitalists often forget is that it is the workers who purchase the products. The students who once took out those loans are the customers they now court. The citizens who owe loans are the same citizens America relies upon to reproduce, and secure a future. As more people become cash-strapped, less commerce will take place. Because less commerce will take place, people will lose their jobs. The instability will further prolong family planning.
Plain common sense says that the aftereffects of this one policy decision will create a generational downturn that is fated to be continuously passed to future Americans like a baton.
My grandfather’s struggle was my mother’s struggle is my struggle. If those in my generation choose to have children, it will be their children’s struggle as well.
Molly McGhee teaches at Columbia University. Her debut novel, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind, explores the psychological ramifications of debt.
Co-published with The Guardian.