She pushed for student loan forgiveness for a decade. It could happen
Source: Isabella De Maddalena
Astra Taylor took out her first student loan when she was 17. She attended Brown University and The New School and owed tens of thousands of dollars when she defaulted on her debt during the 2008 financial crisis.
“Overnight they added 19% to my capital,” said Taylor, 42. “Like millions of others, I was caught in a debt trap.”
Luckily, in 2012 her partner Jeff Mangum, a musician who formed the band Neutral Milk Hotel, offered to pay off her loans. Her life changed in almost every way.
“It saved me decades of payments,” she said. Without worrying about paying her monthly student loan bill, she was able to focus on her passion, documentaries and book writing.
Around the same time, in 2014, she helped found Debt Collective, the first union for debtors.
“The experience of having the weight of my student loans lifted is one reason I do this work,” Taylor said. “I want the same relief and opportunity for other people.”
President Joe Biden recently said he would make an announcement on student loan forgiveness within weeks. CNBC interviewed Taylor about what it’s like to finally see something on the horizon that you’ve fought for so long.
Annie Nova: Personal experience aside, what made you do one of your life’s work Fight for indebted people?
Astra Taylor: When wages are not high enough to cover the necessities of life, poor and working people have no choice but to go into debt to survive. In that sense, we are being robbed twice, first by bosses who underpay us, and then by lenders who charge interest and fees when we borrow to fill the gap. Contrary to stereotypes, a lot of credit card debt is used for basic needs — things like rent, groceries, and medical care. In this country most working people do not live beyond their means, they are denied the means to live. The result is skyrocketing household debt.
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AN: Why do you think people in debt need a union?
AT THE: The financial sector is incredibly well organized. They lobby 24/7 and have been able to end anti-usury policies, deregulate the banking industry and grow their business, and we are all paying the price. That’s why we must unite to fight for fairer conditions, debt relief and policy changes that ensure we don’t have to borrow to survive.
AN: Outstanding student loan debt has been rising for decades. What do you think are some of the earliest roots of the crisis?
AT THE: We used to have a model of adequate funding for public higher education. That began to change in the 1960s when Ronald Reagan was governor of California. He dismantled the University of California’s master plan, which provided free college for all, and demanded that the system start charging students. This was part of his strategy to quell student protests for civil rights and free speech. The idea was that people who have to go into debt to go to school would think twice about paying to picket-carry. His actions were part of the broader right-wing push to dismantle state services and hand over as many public institutions as possible to private actors looking for new profit opportunities.
AN: You have a problem with the term “student loan writ”. can you explain why
AT THE: Millions of borrowers have repaid the original amount they borrowed and are still in debt thanks to compound interest, and many of them somehow owe more than their original balances. That’s the classic definition of a debt trap. It makes no sense to say that these people ask for “forgiveness”. This word gives the impression that debtors have done something wrong. We are talking about a system level problem – not an individual moral failure.
AN: What role do you think student debt relief could play in the midterm elections?
AT THE: Nearly 1 in 5 Trump voters said they would consider voting for a Democrat if Democrats canceled all student debt. Another poll found that 40% of black voters would consider staying at home in the next election if there were no action on student loan debt. It could make or break Democrats in battleground states.
AN: It remains uncertain how much student debt, if any, will be forgiven. Biden has said he’s not considering wiping out $50,000 per borrower and suggested going for a smaller number. They believe all outstanding student debt of $1.7 trillion should be forgiven. Why?
AT THE: For millions of borrowers caught in a debt trap, $10,000 or $20,000 hardly makes a dent in the amount they owe. For 83% of black borrowers, $10,000 debt relief still leaves a balance greater than their original amount. This is unacceptable.
AN: One of the main arguments against foreclosure on student loans is that it benefits people who have been better off since going to college. What are your thoughts on this?
AT THE: Really rich people don’t have college debt because they or their parents could foot the bill. Also, the wealthy receive a lot of financial support that they don’t acknowledge. Mortgage holders have been able to take advantage of historically low interest rates and have their mortgage interest tax deductible. Credit card borrowers who are more likely to have problems don’t get a 3% interest rate to write off. Our financial system is riddled with this kind of double standard, targeting poor and working people.
AN: Student debt relief could be imminent. How does that feel?
AT THE: It’s amazing to see something you’ve been working on for so long making its way into the mainstream, and to hear Sen. Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., and others repeat our talking points. We first protested student debt in 2012 when it surpassed $1 trillion. Ten years later it’s hurtling towards $2 trillion and even more borrowers are suffering. The problem has gotten much worse, but at least we are finally hearing politicians acknowledging that the only sensible solution is to pay off the debt.