apparently it’s not enough for 45 million people to know this

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Hello from the haze of the last week of the first draft of the new book! My brain is mush, my concentration is shot, I oscillate between thinking what I’m staring at in this Google Doc is either mostly nonsense or mostly embarrassing. Jami Attenberg writes a great craft talk newsletter about the brain-wringing quality of the process, particularly during a pandemic, which I can only imagine is even more intense when dealing with memoir. But I’m eager for the very real catharsis of a (temporary) finish line, for the fancy hotel room I’m going to give myself as a gift, and to regain some clarity and wash the sheets and go on a walk with no end destination in mind.

For now, I’ll direct you to my recent piece on student debt cancellation, which is the latest in my series of pieces for Vox on the hollow middle class. I’ve written about student debt before, and I’m just so fucking exhausted with the tautological conversations we have about it, all of them so focused on the individual. As I write in the piece, when the problem remains individual, so too do the solutions:

Examine someone’s student loan journey from the outside, and you can find numerous places where you’d have advised them to take a different turn. To anyone with student debt, all of these arguments will be familiar: You should’ve read the fine print. You should’ve picked a different major. You should’ve looked up the graduation rates of that college. You should have consolidated. You shouldn’t have consolidated. You should’ve understood compounding interest. You shouldn’t have gone to grad school. You should’ve called your loan servicer and sat on hold for an hour every day until you got this sorted out. You should have survived on rice and beans. You should’ve taken a second, or third, or fourth job. You should’ve lived a completely different life, and made completely different decisions. Maybe then you wouldn’t have this debt.

I found it wonderfully cathartic to write that paragraph, simply because it offered me the opportunity to ventriloquize the chorus of responses that have greeted me every time I and or anyone else tries to advocate for cancellation. You might hear them from your own parents, or some rando on Twitter, or even President Biden, usually cloaked in that familiar rhetoric of “but what about [insert story of a person you know whose family managed to scrap and save to get them through college debt free, or whose parents were already financially secure enough so that they could get through college debt free.]

Okay fine, I’ll play. Zoom back and look at the particulars of any of these “what about” story’s debt-free journey. What sort of luck, especially by birth or mentorship, did they have that made it possible for them? How did their race dictate whether or not their own parents or grandparents were able to attend college for free? In many cases, the luck was simply being born at a time when we, as a society, believed in publicly funding higher education. That was a collective decision. It had very little to do with the individual decisions made by someone who “worked their way through college” in 1975.

But that’s still kinda the wrong conversation. When you focus on these individual stories, even as a way to vivify the reality of living under debt, you focus on individual solutions as well — which is precisely what the Biden administration is proposing. Maybe we’ll give people $10k, they say — and then we’ll work to strengthen programs for those in repayment. But those programs are broke as shit. I cannot underline this enough, because people who haven’t battled these programs still don’t understand the extent of the problem.

In 2017, only 1 percent of applicants for public service loan forgiveness were approved; as of November 2020, after dozens of articles concerning the way the program had actively misled its participants and mishandled applications, 6,493 out of 269,611 applications had been approved. That’s 2.4 percent.

Okay, people say, public service loan forgiveness is busted, but borrowers can still go on an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan: pay a percentage of your income for 20 to 25 years, and then the remainder of the balance is wiped out. But the first wave of people who were eligible for IDR plans first started applying over the last four years — and, according to the results of a recent FOIA request, thirty two people have actually received it. Thirty two! And we only know that because of FOIA! This shit is wild, no wonder they’re not broadcasting it! But given the success rate for public service loan forgiveness applicants, why should we expect anything else?

People who’ve dealt with loans know this. They know what a huge asshole the major loan servicer, Navient, was to hundreds of thousands of borrowers, deliberating misleading them into programs that led to incredible increases in accumulated interest. They know what a storybook of nightmares it is to deal with these servicers. They understand the slow-dawning reality that a for-profit college was allowed to target you, because of your race and where you grew up, for high interest loans on exorbitant tuition on a degree you’re unlikely to finish. And they know the feeling of dread and deep despair that comes with the feeling that you will spend the rest of your life paying down a broken dream.

But apparently it’s not enough for 45 million people to know this. We have to make the extent of the crisis felt. It has to feel unconscionable that a system created to expand the middle class is hollowing it out and expanding the racial gap. No other country in the world has let the system get this out of control.

But again: so many people can’t seem to get past “what about.” So what I try and do with the piece, with the assistance of brilliant sociologists Louise Seamster and Frederick Wherry, is reframe the question altogether — and have a very different conversation about what college has historically been for, what degrees do now, and why our thinking about who should shoulder the burden for institutions has shifted as more people who aren’t white men have gained access to them.

I hope you’ll read the piece, if only to texture your current thinking, or realize just how easy it is to revert to the “what about” line of questioning — including “what about other programs to make college affordable, we should be focusing on those.” Of course we should! That and forgiveness! I don’t ask for much, just actual reform in the way we think about higher ed, which means thinking about how all of this stuff interlocks. Don’t, in other words, be this dude:

Can you tell I’m writing the chapter of the book that’s about how none of these “future of work” ideas will work if we only focus on individual flexibility, individual benefits, individual solutions? Collectivism or bust.

This tweet offers one last idea to chew on — and please feel free to use the comments to tell me what component of the hollow middle class I should address next.

A few midweek recommendations:

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