Let’s End the Shame of Student Debt While Calling for Its Cancelation

My past-due parking tickets were a major reason I lost favorability with voters last year when I ran for mayor in Buffalo, New York. There was much talk in mainstream media about the amount of debt Stacy Abrams had when she ran for governor in Georgia in 2018. These examples are shared because the majority of working poor people do not withhold debt payments. We have to make a choice between paying illegitimate loans (like student loans and parking tickets) and feeding our families or paying for life-saving treatment for our loved ones.

New York State’s recently passed $220 billion budget has me thinking about the broad acceptance of the idea that the wealthy are best equipped to make the decisions that are supposed to benefit the public at large. The state decided that $650 million was a wise investment for the Buffalo Bills billionaires, while ignoring the failing infrastructure, lack of decent housing, or the failing education system in cities like Buffalo. We have reached a stage of capitalism in which corporate-dominated governments will spend more public money on entertainment than for the public good.

Last month, I attended a “debtors assembly” in Washington, D.C., hosted by The Debt Collective. It was the first time I publicly acknowledged how much student debt I carry — along with millions of other people. I’m not the only one and there is no reason to shame. It was liberating. But it also got me thinking about how the federal, state, and municipal budgets would look if elected people who have had to make a choice between student loan payments or medication. What kind of compassionate and talented people would run for office, if they weren’t forced to work under the shameful stigma of student, consumer, or medical debt?

Voters are questioning the inability of the Democratic majority to deliver voting rights, the Build back Better bill, or cancelation of student loans as we approach the 2022 midterm elections. The single most straightforward thing President Biden could do to save the Democratic majority and stimulate the economy this midterm is to cancel student loans. Our country has approximately 45 million students who owe $1.7 billion in student debt, which is in stark contrast to other industrialized countries that offer free or cheap higher education.

We now face the difficult task of changing the narrative about who bears the debt burden, who should have personal agency, and who should have decision-making power. As a RootsAction member, I am thrilled to continue my vital coalition work. (For more information about our organization, click here #withoutstudentdebtVisit the campaign withoutstudentdebt.us.)

While the hardships that are imposed on workers have become more severe and inhumane in recent decades, vast wealth has been funneled into a few pockets. As crucial steps to reduce income inequality, we need to reject “debt shaming” and insist on cancelation of student debt.