Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me

Now thirty years old, I have been incapacitated by debt for a decade. The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives. To this end, I am just one of about forty-four million borrowers in the United States who owe a total of roughly $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. This number is almost incomprehensibly high, and yet it continues to increase with no sign of stopping. Reform legislation that might help families in financial hardship has failed in Congress. A bill introduced in May 2017, the Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act, which would undo changes made to the bankruptcy code in the early 2000s, stalled in committee. Despite all evidence that student loan debt is a national crisis, the majority of the U.S. government—the only party with the power to resolve the problem—refuses to acknowledge its severity.

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me

An American family’s struggle for student loan redemption

M.H. Miller No. 40

ON HALLOWEEN IN 2008, about six weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, my mother called me from Michigan to tell me that my father had lost his job in the sales department of Visteon, an auto parts supplier for Ford. Two months later, my mother lost her own job working for the city of Troy, a suburb about half an hour from Detroit. From there our lives seemed to accelerate, the terrible events compounding fast enough to elude immediate understanding. By June, my parents, unable to find any work in the state where they spent their entire lives, moved to New York, where my sister and I were both in school. A month later, the mortgage on my childhood home went into default for lack of payment.

After several months of unemployment, my mother got a job in New York City fundraising for a children’s choir. In the summer of 2010, I completed school at New York University, where I received a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature, with more than $100,000 of debt, for which my father was a cosigner. By this time, my father was still unemployed and my mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She continued working, though her employer was clearly perturbed that she’d have to take off every Friday for chemotherapy. To compensate for the lost time, on Mondays she rode early buses into the city from the Bronx, where, after months of harrowing uncertainty, my parents had settled. She wanted to be in the office first thing.

In January 2011, Chase Bank took full possession of the house in Michigan. Our last ties were severed by an email my father received from the realtor, who had tried and failed to short sell the property, telling him “it’s safe to turn off the utilities.” In May, I got a freelance contract with a newspaper that within a year would hire me full-time—paying me, after taxes, roughly $900 every two weeks. In September 2011, my parents were approved for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, and in October, due to a paperwork snafu, their car was repossessed in the middle of the night by creditors. Meanwhile, the payments for my debt—which had been borrowed from a variety of federal and private lenders, most prominently Citibank—totaled about $1,100 a month.

Now thirty years old, I have been incapacitated by debt for a decade. The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives. To this end, I am just one of about forty-four million borrowers in the United States who owe a total of roughly $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. This number is almost incomprehensibly high, and yet it continues to increase with no sign of stopping. Reform legislation that might help families in financial hardship has failed in Congress. A bill introduced in May 2017, the Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act, which would undo changes made to the bankruptcy code in the early 2000s, stalled in committee. Despite all evidence that student loan debt is a national crisis, the majority of the U.S. government—the only party with the power to resolve the problem—refuses to acknowledge its severity.

The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives.

My debt was the result, in equal measure, of a chain of rotten luck and a system that is an abject failure by design. My parents never lived extravagantly. In the first years of their marriage, my father drove a cab. When they had children and my father started a career in the auto industry, we became firmly middle class, never wanting for anything, even taking vacations once a year to places like Myrtle Beach or Miami. Still, there was usually just enough money to cover the bills—car leases, a mortgage, groceries. My sister and I both attended public school. How much things cost was a constant discussion. Freshman year of high school, when I lost my yearbook, which cost $40, my mother very nearly wept. College, which cost roughly $50,000 a year, was the only time that money did not seem to matter. “We’ll find a way to pay for it,” my parents said repeatedly, and if we couldn’t pay for it immediately, there was always a bank somewhere willing to give us a loan. This was true even after my parents had both lost their jobs amidst a global financial meltdown. Like many well-meaning but misguided baby boomers, neither of my parents received an elite education but they nevertheless believed that an expensive school was not a materialistic waste of money; it was the key to a better life than the one they had. They continued to put faith in this falsehood even after a previously unimaginable financial loss, and so we continued spending money that we didn’t have—money that banks kept giving to us.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last decade shifting the blame for my debt. Whose fault was it? My devoted parents, for encouraging me to attend a school they couldn’t afford? The banks, which should have never lent money to people who clearly couldn’t pay it back to begin with, continuously exploiting the hope of families like mine, and quick to exploit us further once that hope disappeared? Or was it my fault for not having the foresight to realize it was a mistake to spend roughly $200,000 on a school where, in order to get my degree, I kept a journal about reading Virginia Woolf? (Sample passage, which assuredly blew my mind at the time: “We are interested in facts because we are interested in myth. We are interested in myth insofar as myth constructs facts.”) The problem, I think, runs deeper than blame. The foundational myth of an entire generation of Americans was the false promise that education was priceless—that its value was above or beyond its cost. College was not a right or a privilege but an inevitability on the way to a meaningful adulthood. What an irony that the decisions I made about college when I was seventeen have derailed such a goal.

Letter to an Unknown Lender

After the dust settled on the collapse of the economy, on my family’s lives, we found ourselves in an impossible situation: we owed more each month than we could collectively pay. And so we wrote letters to Citibank’s mysterious P.O. Box address in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, begging for help, letters that I doubt ever met a human being. We grew to accept Citibank as a detestable Moloch that we feared and hated but were made to worship. The letters began to comprise a diary for my father in particular, a way to communicate a private anguish that he mostly bottled up, as if he was storing it for later. In one letter, addressed “Dear Citi,” he pleaded for a longer-term plan with lower monthly payments. He described how my mother’s mounting medical bills, as well as Chase Bank’s collection on our foreclosed home, had forced the family into bankruptcy, which provided no protection in the case of private student loans. We were not asking, in the end, for relief or forgiveness, but merely to pay them an amount we could still barely afford. “This is an appeal to Citi asking you to work with us on this loan,” he wrote to no one at all.

Finally, at the beginning of 2012, my father started writing to the office of Congressman Joseph Crowley, who represented the district in the Bronx where my parents had relocated. In one of these letters, he described watching Too Big to Fail, an HBO film about the financial crisis, which had come out several months earlier. (My parents lost every asset they had, but they still subscribed to HBO, which became more than TV for them, a symbolic relic of their former class status.) The recession was over, officially anyway, and people who had not suffered its agonies were already profiting from its memory. Recession films often took place in the gleaming offices of hedge funds and investment banks, with attractive celebrities offering sympathetic portrayals of economists and bankers—Zachary Quinto, in 2011’s Margin Call, for instance, plays a rocket scientist-turned-risk analyst with a heart of gold, a do-gooder who discovers that his employer has leveraged itself to the edge of bankruptcy. The stars of these films depicted figures who experienced little to no repercussions for their roles in leading the country into a recession, who abused the misfortune of people like my parents—unmentionables who owed more on their houses than what they had paid for them and, of course, who were rarely visited in any of these films. My father described himself and my mother to Crowley as “the poster children for this entire financial event,” by which he meant Americans who seemed to have done everything right on paper, but in doing so contributed to their own downfall. By the time he wrote to Crowley, my father was working again, but it had taken him two years to find another job for much less money. After his run of financial calamity, he knew better than to believe anything good would last. “We are in our sixties and I figure when we get to our mid-seventies life will become difficult again,” he wrote.

Crowley’s office wrote back. It was the first time in about two years that a person had responded to our correspondence with encouragement, or something like it. Kevin Casey, who worked for Crowley in Washington, helped arrange a conference call with government liaisons from Citigroup to discuss a different payment plan. The current monthly payments to Citi were for more than $800 a month, and we were trying to talk them into letting us pay the loan over a longer period, at a rate of about $400 a month. These terms were reasonable enough, but the response to this request was like an automated message brought to life: “We are precluded from a regulatory perspective from being able to do what you are asking,” each of the representatives said. What made these exchanges more ridiculous was the fact that Citibank was in the process of retreating from the student loan market by selling off my debt to Discover Financial, who would give us the same response. We were nothing to these companies but a number in a database. And they fully controlled our fates.

The Unsweetened Release

M.H. Miller is the arts editor for The New York Times Style Magazine.

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