Let’s end the shame of student debt while calling for its cancellation

When I ran for mayor in Buffalo, New York, last year, my overdue parking tickets became a major reason for declining voter favor. When Stacy Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, there was a lot of mainstream media coverage about her debt load. I share these examples because in general, the working poor do not voluntarily withhold payment of their debts. We face the very real decision between paying often illegitimate debts (like parking tickets and student loans) and feeding our children or paying for vital medical care for our loved ones.

The $220 billion budget recently passed by New York State reminds me of the general acceptance of the idea that the wealthy are best equipped to make the decisions that are meant to benefit the general public. The state decided it was a wise move to give $650 million to billionaire owners of the Buffalo Bills while turning a blind eye to crumbling infrastructure, lack of decent housing and struggling education system in cities like Buffalo. We have now reached the stage of capitalism where corporate-dominated governments are more willing to invest public money in entertainment than in the public good.

Last month, I attended a “debtors’ meeting” in Washington, DC, hosted by The debt collective. It was the first time I publicly acknowledged the amount of my student debt, along with millions of other people. I am not alone and I have no reason to be ashamed. Not only was it liberating, but it got me thinking: What would city, state, and even federal budgets look like if we elected people who had to choose between drugs and student loan repayments? Moreover, what kind of talented and compassionate people would run for office if they weren’t forced to remain in the shadows under the stigma and shame of medical, consumer or student debt?

As we look to the 2022 midterm elections, voters are questioning the failure of a Democratic majority in Congress to deliver the right to vote, the Build Back Better bill and the overturning of the student debt. The simplest thing President Biden can do to help save the Democratic midterm majority, while boosting the economy, is write off student debt; and he should do so without delay. Unlike other highly industrialized nations where higher education is inexpensive or free, approximately 45 million people in our country owe a total of $1.7 trillion in student debt.

We now have the crucial challenge of changing the narrative about who bears the burden of debt, who deserves personal agency, and who deserves decision-making ability. That’s why I’m excited to continue participating in the vital work of the coalition as a member of the RootsAction team. (For more information on our #withoutstudentdebt campaign, visit sansdettedetudiants.us.)

The hardships imposed on working people have become even harsher and inhumane in recent years, while immense wealth has been funneled into the pockets of a very few. As crucial steps to reducing income inequality, we must reject “debt shame” and insist on canceling student debt.

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