Let’s be clear: with the cost of gas topping four dollars a gallon, the grocery store running our pockets, and rents consistently too damn high, that lil’ 10-20 stacks Uncle Joe wiped from the student loan debt of 43 million borrowers is right on time. Let’s be clear about this, too, though: that debt forgiveness is woefully inadequate, particularly for Black women.
We are one of the most educated groups in America because we know the stakes: to even begin to compete in the workforce and earn the kind of money that pulls and keeps our families out of poverty and puts a dent in the racial wealth gap, we need that degree. But no amount of summer job savings, or love offerings from family and the church, or scholarships from organizations trying to help can cover these exorbitant tuition bills, which, today, are running at about $9,400 per year at public undergraduate schools and $37,600 at private, non-profit ones.
So, we first-gen, low-income students with zero family contribution toward college costs borrow and beg in pursuit of the bachelor’s and graduate degree bag—only to get stuck with one. Black women hold, on average, $38,800 in loans when we get that undergraduate sheepskin, and we owe an average of $58,252 in graduate loans when we reach higher for our academic and professional goals.
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And then we cross that stage, degrees in hand, only to run headfirst into a crappy labor market, systemic racism and an inequitable distribution of wealth that impacts Black women standing at the intersection of racism and sexism in the workforce. We earn 63 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men—and that’s if we can even get the high-paying jobs that our education is supposed to draw. Now toss in the “black tax” of taking care of struggling family members, having our wealth stolen through racist practices like redlining, and just plain starting behind the eight ball coming from families that have zero accrued wealth and no ability to help us start our adult lives on good footing, and we’ve got a recipe for “I ain’t got it” disaster when it comes to paying back those loans and the interest saddled on top of it.
A 2021 report by the Education Trust coined the phenomena “Jim Crow debt,” comparing student loans and the exorbitant interest rates that come with them to the trap Black folks faced sharecropping after emancipation and the subprime mortgage disaster that stole the wealth of millions of Black homeowners between 2007 and 2010. Black borrowers interviewed for the report said that while they didn’t regret going to college or graduate school, they regretted “having to mortgage their future to pay for it.” Illustrating just how predatory the student loan industry is, one Black woman recounted for the report how $24,000 in loans she had in 1990 ballooned into a $125,000 debt that she has no idea how she’ll pay back. “I am 62 years old, and I don’t know how I will retire,” the borrower said.
But go off, Uncle Joe. That $10,000 in debt relief—$20,000 for Pell grant recipients—is cute and all, and it’s great that new rules would cap payments at five percent of borrowers’ income (vs. 10 percent) and the loan would be forgiven after 10 years (instead of 20), but for all-too-many, that doesn’t even cover the interest accrued on the money borrowed. So President Biden gets to crow about making good on a campaign pledge to help with student debt, and Democrats get to add that to their line-item of campaign talking points as they head into midterm elections, acting like they just arranged for Black voters to get their 40 acres and their mules, while the rest of us are standing here, calculators in hand, super clear that the math ain’t mathing.
I was a lucky one: I went to school on a full-tuition scholarship back in the late ‘80s. But as much as my parents tried to help, I still had to borrow in my later years to pay for books, dorm and meal plan fees and other college expenses that left me with about $10,000 in debt that I had to pay back on a $24,000 reporter’s salary. I eventually got a better paying gig that afforded me the ability to pay back the loan and interest I owed, but until I was settled up, SallieMae stayed calling my phone with threats and intimidation, like some loan shark pimp on a street corner, waiting for his bitch to bring him his cash.
This is why it’s absolutely bizarre to hear all these detractors—these regular, everyday citizens with basic jobs and degrees and long-settled student loan debt and tuition bills—running through the internet streets, proclaiming just how big mad they are that they had to pay their tuition while the government is “unfairly” using “their” taxpayer dollars to erase the student loan debt of others. The “I had to pay so you should, too” mentality is despicable.
The U.S. stays bailing out corporations, extending tax benefits to the wealthy, wasting money on defense and sending billions to foreign countries (Ukraine has gotten $13.5 billion in aid from the U.S. since January to help the tiny country defend democracy against Russia, even as our country works overtime to dismantle democracy and turn its back on Black peoples’ voting rights). White folk filled their bank accounts with government programs like the GI Bill, farm subsidies and the like, but giving a little measly $10,000 in student loan forgiveness to people struggling with debt against a predatory system designed to make Black women fail is a problem?
Having made it through paying off our own student loans by hook and by crook, the one thing my ex-husband and I promised our children was that we would do whatever it took to help them get undergraduate degree sans the student loan burden we went through. One daughter made it out of Yale debt-free, thanks to the school’s generous grant and our ability to pay the difference. My other daughter starts junior year in a week, and we’re biting our nails, anxious to hear just how much we’ll be paying out-of-pocket after grants and discounts—an amount that grows and runs our pockets each year, but that we figure out how to cover because one of the greatest gifts we could give her and her sister is the ability to take their first post-college jobs without student loans hanging on their necks like spiked shackles. The younger one, at least, will be able to spend her first salary on living, on saving, on buying a house, on being able to afford having children and giving back to our community—getting on the good foot as she begins her adult life, should she skip a post graduate education.
My older daughter, on the other hand, is six weeks into med school, facing about $40,000 in annual loans until she graduates with an MD in four years. If she pursues a specialty, she’ll be looking at at least three additional years of debt.
Not gonna lie: President Biden’s announcement, and all the clear-eyed examinations of just how inadequate his loan forgiveness program is for Black women, has me scared for her.
For us all.
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