Last night I started a petition on Change.org calling for a change to how student loan payments are calculated.
Here is why...
I admit that I am at a crossroads of sorts.
I have only been out of law school for one year and I am already considering either leaving the profession or shifting direction to focus more on financial gain and less on social justice.
For the last couple of months, I have even been trying to convince myself that getting big money can be and is indeed a revolutionary strategy, especially if you come from a marginalized community as I do.
There is something perverse about my path -- making it through schools in one of the worst school districts in the country, to making it through law school as one of three black men in my graduating class, to passing the California bar exam through some combination of studying, luck, and divine intervention, and then coming out on the other end -- by all accounts, a symbol of the American Dream (email me for a signed selfie with my bootstraps), yet still feeling deprived of it.
On my mother's side I am the first male in my family with a bachelor's degree, and the first lawyer.
I am stereotypically representative of the millennial class that you have been hearing so much about (see entitled, whiny, and just like every other generation that the previous generations despised). The most educated generation in American history, and the generation least likely to have opportunities for home ownership and retirement savings. Despite all our degrees, our job opportunities are dismal at best, and due to unfettered rises in higher education expenses, we are prisoners to debt.
Now before you launch into some of the usual critique (poor planning, bad major, etc.), know this: I have made all of the supposed "responsible decisions." I attended state schools, first starting off at community college, then transferring to a four-year university, which I attended on a state scholarship. I worked while going to school so I could avoid debt. Yet when I graduated, there were no jobs for me. Rather than complain, I created my own opportunities -- I even ran my own business to try to survive. And when the advocacy bug hit me, I first did AmeriCorps to earn an education award, then I went to law school on a virtually full-ride scholarship which included a living stipend.
Even all of those things weren't enough to save me from debt, though.
My mother did also four terms of AmeriCorps and gave me her education awards. Even that wasn't enough to save me for debt.
Nevertheless, I count myself as one of the lucky ones, with just under $20,000 of debt.
But even with what is comparatively a small debt load, my current income as a public interest fellowship attorney makes the monthly payments of over $200 almost too much to bear. Why do you ask? Because the rent in the San Francisco Bay Area is ridiculous. I live with my girlfriend, who has the same fellowship as me, and a roommate who has a great job with the San Francisco Unified School District, and we all still have a hard time paying everything while attempting to put something aside for a rainy day.
Yesterday morning I had a conversation with Fed Loans, my loan servicer, about my student loan payment and why it was so high, despite my being on an income-based loan repayment plan, and despite my working as a public interest attorney.
It was explained to me that in spite of the fact that I work in public interest in one of the most expensive places in the country, cost of living was not a factor to be taken into consideration when determining my student loan payment amount.
At that point it dawned on me that -- in the interest of fairness -- it should be. For those of us who live and work in place like San Francisco, DC, New York City, Boston and other places where the rent is TOO DAMN HIGH, we know that a public interest attorney's $40,000 salary -- or anyone's $40,000 salary -- does not spend the same way everywhere.
It seems to me that cost of living or average rental expenses should at least be figured into the calculation of student loan payments. Costs of living aren't standardized, and so student loan payments shouldn't be either.
When loan servicers fail to consider the reality of individual living conditions while expecting us all to be able to manage the same monthly payments, it is not only wrong, but the underlying assumptions are intellectually dishonest.
This doesn't even take into account additional costs - for example, childcare and other such expenses (but one step at a time). FULL DISCLOSURE: We are expecting a child this summer, and I am expecting you to be happy for us since there has been much reported on millennials delaying adulthood. Here we are -- two 30+ attorneys -- it's about time, no?
But maybe it's true -- we just may be too poor to procreate.
Lest I be seen as merely another millennial whiner, I am asking you to help me make a change -- partially because I believe that I am a special snow flake and partially because I am either courageous enough or stupid enough to believe that we millennials can change Washington, as outsiders.
I ask you to support my petition to Senators Elizabeth Warren, Charles Schumer, and Tim Johnson to push forward this common-sense policy. There should be more flexibility and individualization built into the loan repayment system.
Right now is the time, as Senator Warren and a coalition of labor, policy, and student organizations are currently presenting innovative ways to transform the student loan system. The time is ripe as there are stories everywhere about student loan debt and the political outrage it causes.
There is a lot of work being done on this issue, but still a tremendous amount to be done. I hope you will join me in contributing to the conversation by signing the petition.