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Student Loan Forgiveness Initiative Gaining Momentum?

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Robert Applebaum is like many of us. He's barely making a dent on paying off his student loan debt. He struggles to pay his bills on time because he's too busy spending his hard-earned pay on a hard-earned education he'll forever be paying for. Back in February, I told you about this 35-year-old attorney, and how he launched a Facebook group to promote student loan forgiveness for the "hard-working, educated middle class" making under $150,000 annually. His logic was if the government let the rich off the hook with a bailout, they should do the same for the common man.

More importantly, in doing so, Applebaum -- whose been fighting off his own loans since 1998 -- noted it'd stimulate the economy. "Knowing I'd have an extra $500 per month in my pocket will get me spending again. Multiply that across the country and the economy will start to move again," he told me at the time.

Zoom in nearly six months and Applebaum's idea is still just that: an idea. But, there's no mistaking the "movement" is rolling right along. "The idea has spread like wildfire," Applebaum said in a June 26 interview, noting how when the piece ran in February he had just a couple thousand signed up on his Facebook petition and now has (at press time) 213,291 and counting. He also said more and more news outlets are covering the topic, he's set up a blog on the topic, and he's hopeful his initiative will be -- at the very least -- considered.

In essence, what has happened since the initial story a few months back?
People from all walks of life have visited the Facebook group and the new website and shared their student loan horror stories. My intention when I originally wrote the essay was to advocate for a different method of stimulating the economy. Little did I realize that I'd hit such a nerve and unleash a flurry of stories from so many people regarding the hardships that their student loans pose in their lives. I wasn't even aware of all of the inequities in the system and, because I'm current in my student loan payments, didn't realize how much more burdensome they are to so many people.

Have any politicians joined your cause?
Councilman Jim Sano of the Albany City Council has introduced or is planning to introduce a resolution encouraging the U.S. Senate to consider student loan forgiveness as a means of economic stimulus. But so far, that's all I've heard. Nothing of any consequence... yet.

Did you ever think your idea would take you this far?
Never in a million years. I wrote what I thought was a pretty good essay arguing for a bottom-up approach to stimulating the economy. I never expected 100 people to read it, much less 200,000-plus. I certainly never sought attention or press -- all of the stories that have been written about it have been the result of the reporter contacting me, not the other way around.

You've incorporated your own non-profit organization -- what is the goal there?
To bring this budding grassroots movement to the next level through lobbying, education, awareness, continued publicity and to provide a forum where new ideas can be debated and student loan horror stories can be shared. I've also started to blog [about it] and I'm hopeful that people will continue to read my thoughts on not only issues pertaining to student loans, but a vast array of topics.

Are you still practicing law?
No. This has become my full-time, non-paying job. I'm still paying my loans though.

Most importantly, do you know if the president has heard of your campaign?
I suspect that he has because in a town hall forum a few months back, he responded to a question about student loan forgiveness and indicated that, in addition to the steps he's taken thus far to move towards a more direct lending program, his administration is looking into other avenues by which to help struggling middle class student loan debtors, including adjustments to the principals owed. I cannot say for certain that he's specifically heard of what I've proposed, but I'm fairly sure he's aware of the idea based on prior statements that he's given.

A big opposition to your idea is that students who have paid their loans in the past will resent people who get bailed out. Whats your thoughts on this?
I recognize that it's unfair. Nothing in a democracy is ever truly fair. I don't have children, yet my taxes pay for public schools. I don't collect Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid, yet I pay FICA taxes. The measure by which this proposal should be judged is not whether it's fair but whether it would work to turn the economy around. When the economy starts to grow again, everyone benefits. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the old Washington ways of doing business are no longer applicable to the 21st Century economy. New ideas need to be considered to help the middle class unshackle themselves from crushing debts that keep them from realizing the American dream. One should not have to be punished for the rest of his or her life simply for wanting to obtain a higher education. Society as a whole benefits from a well-educated citizenry. It's time we start recognizing the real value of an education to everybody and fund it accordingly.

Last logical question: What's next for you and the movement?
Continue to spread awareness about the benefits of student loan forgiveness, not only as a means of economic stimulus, but to expose the inequities that exist between student loans and all other types of debt. Starting on July 1, the Income-based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs go into effect and I'm afraid that people will just assume that the problem is solved. Those programs were passed through legislation in 2007 and do not reflect the current state of the U.S. economy.

With the lack of jobs for new graduates, as well as older borrowers, there is a looming student loan bubble about to burst. Default rates are going to soar because borrowers simply do not have the incomes to keep up with payments. I want to continue to educate the general public that we are not seeking a bailout, per se, but, rather, recognition that the way we fund higher education in this country has had the unintended consequence of indenturing an entire generation of students who now comprise the "educated poor." Tuition costs have skyrocketed at more than twice the rate of inflation and students are turning more and more to private loans where there are even fewer consumer protections than federal loans.

There are economic incentives for lenders to let a borrower default rather than coming to a compromise payment plan and the options that do exist for struggling borrowers, like forbearance and deferments, border on usury.