Source: Isabelle De Maddalena
Astra Taylor took out her first student loan at age 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 principal,” Taylor, 42, said. “Like millions of others, I was trapped in debt.”
Luckily, her partner, Jeff Mangum, a musician who founded the band Neutral Milk Hotel, offered to repay her loans in 2012. In almost every way, her life has changed.
“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 of making documentaries and writing books.
Around the same time, in 2014, she participated in the founding of Debt Collective, the first syndicate of debtors.
“The experience of having the weight of my student loans lifted is part of the reason I’m doing this job,” Taylor said. “I want the same relief and opportunity for others.”
President Joe Biden recently said he would make an announcement on student loan forgiveness in a few weeks. CNBC interviewed Taylor about what it’s like to finally see something you’ve been fighting for so long on the horizon.
Annie Nova: Beyond your personal experience, what made you want to make it one of your life’s missions? fight for the indebted?
Astra Taylor: When wages are not high enough to cover the basic needs of life, the poor and working people have no choice but to go into debt to survive. In this sense, we are robbed twice, first by bosses who underpay us, then by lenders who charge interest and fees when we borrow to cover the gap. Contrary to stereotypes, a lot of credit card debt is for basic necessities — things like rent, food, and medical care. In this country, most workers do not live beyond their means, they are denied the means to live. The explosion of household debt is the result.
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AN: Why do people in debt, in your opinion, need a union?
TO: The financial sector is incredibly well organized. They lobby around the clock and succeeded in repealing usury protections, deregulating the banking industry and expanding their businesses, and we are all paying the price. This is why we must come together to fight for fairer terms, debt relief and policy changes that will ensure that we do not have to go into debt to survive.
AN: Outstanding student loans have been increasing for decades. In your opinion, what are the first roots of the crisis?
TO: We had an adequate funding model for public higher education. That started to change in the 1960s, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California. He dismantled the University of California master plan, which offered free education to everyone, and demanded that the system start charging students. This was part of his strategy to calm student protests for civil rights and free speech. The idea was that if people had to go into debt to go to school, they would think twice about paying to carry a sign. His actions were part of the broader right-wing push to dismantle government services and hand over as many public institutions as possible to private actors looking for new ways to profit.
AN: You have a problem with the term “student loan cancellation”. Can you explain why?
TO: Millions of debtors have repaid the original amount they borrowed, and yet are still in debt thanks to compound interest, and many of them somehow owe more than their original balances. This is the classic definition of a debt trap. It makes no sense to say that these people are asking for “sorry”. This word gives the impression that the debtors have done something wrong. We are talking about a system level problem – not an individual moral failure.
AN: What role do you think the cancellation of student debt could have on the midterm elections?
TO: Nearly one in five Trump voters said they would consider voting for a Democrat if Democrats canceled all student debt. Another poll determined that 40% of black voters would consider staying home for the next election if there was no action on student loan debt. It could make or break Democrats in battleground states.
AN: The amount of student debt that will be forgiven, if any, remains uncertain. Biden said he wasn’t considering eliminating $50,000 per borrower, suggesting he could decide on a smaller figure. You think the $1.7 trillion in outstanding student debt should be forgiven. Why?
TO: For millions of borrowers stuck in a debt trap, … $10,000 or $20,000 barely provides a dent in the amount they owe. For 83% of black borrowers, canceling $10,000 of debt still leaves them with a balance greater than their original amount. This is unacceptable.
AN: One of the main arguments against canceling student loans is that it directs resources to the people who are better off, since they have attended university. What do you think about this?
TO: Really rich people don’t have student debt because they or their parents could cover the cost. Also, the wealthy get a lot of financial help that they don’t recognize. Mortgage holders have been able to take advantage of historically low interest rates and they can also deduct their mortgage interest from their taxes. Credit card debtors, who are more likely to struggle, don’t get a 3% interest rate that they can write off. Our financial system is riddled with these kinds of double standards and it is rigged against the poor and the working people.
AN: Cancellation of student debt could be imminent. What does it do?
TO: It’s amazing to see something you’ve been working on for so long go mainstream and to hear people like Sen. Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., and others echo our talking points. We first protested student debt in 2012, when it topped $1 trillion. Ten years later, it’s rushing to $2 trillion and even more borrowers are hurting. The problem has gotten much worse, but at least we are finally hearing politicians acknowledging that the only sensible solution is debt forgiveness.