For two and a half years after my student loan deferment expired, I didn’t touch my student loans at all. Every time a letter came in the mail from CSU Long Beach, my heart would pound and my mind would race, wondering what assets the government might seize in their effort to get their money back. Would they take my cat? (Could they? Why would they do that?) What about my laptop? Or the handful of books I own that are signed by the authors? Can the government evict me for not paying my student loans?) Then those questions would fade into a larger one: Am I a bad person because I can’t pay down my debt?
It’s no mystery where I got the idea that not being able to pay off my student loans made me morally weak, even though I now make payments sporadically. Instagram is a barrage of inspirational quotes that characterize work ethic as a magical, noble thing—The Grind. My Facebook feed is littered with articles about increasing productivity in the workplace, tucked neatly between photos of friends’ babies and Tasty cooking videos. Have you seen the coffee mugs reminding you that you have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé? They’re cute, but I don’t need a coffee mug guilt-tripping me for not being able to pay my Nelnet student loan bill, let alone for not having a robust team of assistants to stylize my life. Everywhere you look, the message is clear: If you can’t pay off your debt, you’re just not grinding hard enough.
Sen. Warren Wants to Cancel Your Student-Loan Debt
When Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren rolled out a plan to eliminate student debt by taxing the rich, critics slammed it as regressive and unfair to those who’ve already paid off their debt. I’m well aware that ignoring my student loan debt is less than ideal, but I don’t have the option to do much else. I made affordable choices: went to community college, then a cheap 4-year university and received financial aid throughout and worked a slew of jobs, but I didn’t have the financial safety net of living at home or close to school or with a handful of roommates. I was repeatedly choosing between buying gas to get to school or using that money to buy groceries, a trend that is increasing among college students today. So I took out a loan to offset the burden. Since college, the only jobs I’ve been able to get all pay minimum wage: Dishwasher, customer service representative, retail worker, barista, fast-casual line cook. I can’t afford to pay off the loan I took out to survive because I’m still trying to survive. There’s no shame in minimum wage work except in the wages, but that work comes with a heavy price. A plan like Warren’s doesn’t just feel like an opportunity to people like me, but an acknowledgment of the reality that grinding isn’t enough anymore.
So why do I feel like I’m failing myself if I’m not working at least two jobs and pursuing additional gigs? In his book Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris brilliantly lays out the root causes that have led to an untenable dynamic between work ethic and quality of life. In school, you’re taught to sacrifice childhood in favor of acquiring tools that will make you a better worker: Skip playing and go study. Enroll in multiple AP classes and extracurriculars. Sign up for pricey SAT prep courses and carry so many books you develop back problems at 16. Go to college and take out loans because that degree is the only thing that matters. Your value as a student is exclusively tied to how well you master working yourself into a fine powder. Harris traces this ethos from infancy into college and beyond, and its impact echoes throughout my life. When I’d tell classmates I couldn’t hang out because I had to work, I’d get looks of awe. Your work ethic is amazing, they’d say. Full-time and working? I don’t know how you do it! As an adult, it’s inspiring when someone can juggle two jobs plus raise their kids. But when you’re working just to keep your head above water, a compliment about work ethic is easy to brush off because what the hell else are you supposed to do? Die?
Kids These Days makes the situation emphatically clear: We have been trained to latch on to these adulations and aspire to bite off more than we can chew because, we’ve been told, our value is limited to the work that we do. If you can’t do these things, it’s because you’re a failure who doesn’t know how to work. So you grind, both to survive and to prove that you’re a hard worker with value. Then one day you’re sitting on the floor behind the cash registers at your minimum wage job, talking nonsense to the new assistant manager because you’ve been up and working 30 of the last 36 hours and your body is broken.
A major discovery I’ve had in my experience with The Grind is the differences in how others respond to it. If I tell someone with a 401K that I work 65 hours a week between two jobs, they pat me on the back, their eyes shimmering with pride, and commend my work ethic. If I tell a coworker at the sandwich shop I currently work at the same thing, they grimace and shake their head with a knowing sigh. The disparity in responses is because my coworkers earn minimum wage. They pick up shifts to pay the bills amid the constant scramble to survive. They know the pain. The financially stable 401K-haver takes on extra work to expand their portfolio or to get a promotion that would bring their 6-figure income up from “low” to “high.” The concept of what The Grind is and what it’s for is completely different. And when The Grind starts grinding you, your relationship with work ethic starts to change. Within the framework of insignificant wages, you learn that there’s no amount of work you can do to meet the financial need you have.
The only way out is through those in power regulating rental costs, increasing the minimum wage – which could once keep a family of three out of poverty – to actually match inflation, and, yes, eliminating student loan debt. The way things are shaping up, we’re collectively learning to put immediate survival ahead of long-term planning. In 2017, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report compiling dozens of studies about how poverty affects decision-making. The report found that across the board, poor people make choices to satisfy their immediate needs (like hunger) over their long-term needs (a retirement fund) as a survival mechanism. You can’t plan for tomorrow when you’re constantly putting out flames today.
The human body produces a finite amount of energy and trying to squeeze every bit out of it takes a toll. My body suffered the most when I worked two part-time jobs, 6am to 10pm most days. Sometimes my arms would go completely numb from standing too long. Sometimes my vision would get flashes of white light because my occipital lobe was just too tired to process sight. These are not things to idolize or commend; they are the unhealthy cost of my pursuit for financial stability. They did not stop me from showing up on election day. But they did make it wildly clear that at this point in the American economic system, there is no bootstrapping your way out of being poor. There are no amount of Beyoncé mugs or flexing emojis or productivity articles that erase the havoc financial instability wreaks on you.
As millennials age out of college and into the workforce, a growing economic epiphany is happening: the goalposts have moved. It’s not enough to go to college anymore. You have to do unpaid internships to stand out, take on student loans to survive, and break your back just to stay afloat. As the burdens of higher costs of living, the student debt crisis, and nonexistent wage growth sharpen into focus for more people, we’re collectively adapting to survive for right now, and student loan debt is one of the things that’s going to increasingly fall to the backburner. The less we can afford to live, the closer we get to that $1.25 trillion bubble popping.
Warren’s debt relief plan is being derided as a handout, but in a few years – as more people higher up the economic food chain are forced to choose between getting to tomorrow or paying off their past – wiping the slate clean and enacting regulation to prevent it from happening again will be common sense. There’s nothing in these circumstances that signal a failure to work hard. We’re just doing what we can, when we can. I’ve moved beyond the fear of failure that my inability to pay off my student loans once evoked. There are only so many hours in a day and so much I can do. Until the predatory system that encourages people to pursue higher education with empty promises of financial stability is broken and reset, namaste in debt. Put that on your mug and drink it.
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