ON HALLOWEEN IN 2008, about six weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, my mother called me from Michigan to tell me that my father had lost his job in the sales department of Visteon, an auto parts supplier for Ford. Two months later, my mother lost her own job working for the city of Troy, a suburb about half an hour from Detroit. From there our lives seemed to accelerate, the terrible events compounding fast enough to elude immediate understanding. By June, my parents, unable to find any work in the state where they spent their entire lives, moved to New York, where my sister and I were both in school. A month later, the mortgage on my childhood home went into default for lack of payment.
After several months of unemployment, my mother got a job in New York City fundraising for a children’s choir. In the summer of 2010, I completed school at New York University, where I received a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature, with more than $100,000 of debt, for which my father was a cosigner. By this time, my father was still unemployed and my mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She continued working, though her employer was clearly perturbed that she’d have to take off every Friday for chemotherapy. To compensate for the lost time, on Mondays she rode early buses into the city from the Bronx, where, after months of harrowing uncertainty, my parents had settled. She wanted to be in the office first thing.
In January 2011, Chase Bank took full possession of the house in Michigan. Our last ties were severed by an email my father received from the realtor, who had tried and failed to short sell the property, telling him “it’s safe to turn off the utilities.” In May, I got a freelance contract with a newspaper that within a year would hire me full-time—paying me, after taxes, roughly $900 every two weeks. In September 2011, my parents were approved for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, and in October, due to a paperwork snafu, their car was repossessed in the middle of the night by creditors. Meanwhile, the payments for my debt—which had been borrowed from a variety of federal and private lenders, most prominently Citibank—totaled about $1,100 a month.
Now thirty years old, I have been incapacitated by debt for a decade. The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives. To this end, I am just one of about forty-four million borrowers in the United States who owe a total of roughly $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. This number is almost incomprehensibly high, and yet it continues to increase with no sign of stopping. Reform legislation that might help families in financial hardship has failed in Congress. A bill introduced in May 2017, the Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act, which would undo changes made to the bankruptcy code in the early 2000s, stalled in committee. Despite all evidence that student loan debt is a national crisis, the majority of the U.S. government—the only party with the power to resolve the problem—refuses to acknowledge its severity.