I am suffocated by student debt. I am 36 years old, I'm employed, and I live slightly above the poverty line.
I flirt with falling into poverty every single year. I'm sure most of these stories start out the same way. I would love to be a spokesperson or an activist for the plights of the indentured servants of student loan debt and/or the working poor, but I already have two jobs (full-time high school teacher and part time economics tutor), I have no savings nor any prospect of savings and with student loan debt being the only debt in this country that you cannot wash away with bankruptcy I can't afford to take off a single day of work to even attempt to organize or be part of an organization that fights for the millions of American who find themselves in the exact same situation.
I graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2000 with an Economics degree (cruelly ironic, I know). My student loan debt was minimal from my undergrad and I ended up paying off about $6,000 from 2000-2007. In that same time I bounced from job to job, ultimately looking for a career. In 2007, I realized that my passion was teaching. I went back to school, obtained my teaching credential and a Master's degree in Education. At about the same time, the economy collapsed, taking most local, state and federal budgets for education with it. My Master's degree cost $36,000 with a 6.8 percent APR. But I was lucky enough to land a teaching job the first year out of school. I thought I had finally captured the elusive "American Dream."
Thinking that I would be able to keep my job for as long as I wanted based on good performance, I was excited to start the process of looking for a house to purchase. My student loan payments started to kick in six months after I graduated and that is when I realized that a home purchase was far away for me. I didn't realize what I was agreeing to when I was signing my student loan documents for graduate school because it had never been explained to me. I had no clue about the difference of borrowing from Sallie Mae or the federal government. I had no clue what the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized meant. I thought my loan repayments would be similar to my undergrad experience. One payment per month that could easily be paid off if I had a decent job. I knew a $36,000 education would take more time to pay off than my undergrad degree, but I didn't realize I was really signing up for four separate payments. This added up to about $400 in payments that I was not ready for. I contacted several banks to see if I could consolidate, but because of the types of loans, each bank informed me that I was unable to consolidate.
While this rude awakening was taking place, I was informed that I was being "laid-off" at the end of the school year due to budget cuts. I was distraught. I just devoted the last three years of my life to teaching and it appeared to be all for naught. I was fortunate enough to be rehired at the same school and actually received a nomination for "Teacher of the Year" in my second year as an educator (and also won Tri-Valley Coach of the Year for the varsity baseball team). But in that same week I was informed that I was being laid off again. After three lay-offs in four years I decided to move from California to Colorado in order to continue to teach but pay a lot less for rent, gas and everything else that is cheaper outside of California. In my two years in Colorado, I was laid off both times, so I moved back to California to take another teaching position. In my seven years as an educator, I've been laid off six times.
I am currently in a temporary teaching position that will ultimately leave me looking for work at the end of the school year again. On top of all that, there is a low key war in education between public education and for-profit charters, online schools and private schools. The for-profit machine has undermined the unions, backed standardized testing and refuses to acknowledge that our failing education system is due to social and economic issues rather than "bad teachers." The fact that I have seven years of public education experience also makes it very unlikely that a charter or private school would hire me due to the fact that I now come from the world of unionization and workers rights. I have pursued switching careers, but I find myself running into two different problems:
1) The longer I teach, the less desirable I become to any other profession. I recently interviewed with a bank and although I was offered the job, the salary was the same entry level wage that a 22-year-old college student would start at. I could not take a $17k pay cut, as I already live paycheck to paycheck.
In 2004 I registered with AppleOne (a temp agency) and received dozens of offers for executive assistant work. When I contacted several temp agencies in the summer of 2013 I couldn't even get a call back from the agencies, let alone a job offer.
2) The erosion of respect for the teaching position in general allows potential employers (whether intentionally or not) to discriminate against former teachers using the logic that teachers in the U.S. are bad at their jobs and held up by their union, therefore former teachers are bad employees.
I currently live in a converted garage (500 sq/ft) with no heat, no air conditioning, and no kitchen -- and all of that costs $900/month. I live paycheck to paycheck, with no savings. I have a dog, which I use to fill the biological urge to have children. At 36 years old, it's slowly starting to dawn on me that I will most likely never have children, as I would never intentionally bring another child into the world of poverty. A house and/or a family is a laughable proposition at this point.
My life prior to student loan debt and the economic collapse of 2008 was one of promise. I was a straight A student in high school and I have earned two degrees. I am a law abiding citizen and have never been arrested. In six and a half years I have paid off $2,000 of principle even though my payments have been roughly $400/month. Most of the payments have gone towards interest. In these current economic circumstances I have experienced the following emotions, thoughts, events and actions: 1) My financial situation has caused a level of depression that is hard to overcome sometimes; 2) My financial situation has made it impossible to buy a home and build equity; 3) My financial situation has caused so much stress it has inadvertently cost me two very important relationships; 4) I have thought about moving out of the country for good, abandoning my family, my friends and most importantly, my debt; 5) Worst of all, my financial situation has broken my spirit and leaves me with a sense of hopelessness most of the time.
I feel like this situation is turning me into a bad person. What happened to the American Dream we all strove so hard to reach? I've done everything that I was told to do in order to be successful. I earned excellent grades, I was in all kinds of extra-curricular activities, I went to college (twice), I pay my bills on time, I'm a good citizen and all for what? I'm in a lifetime of debt with no foreseeable answers. I would legitimately be better off if I was working for $15/hr with no student loan debt than making $56,000/year, getting laid off every year, only paying off the interest of my student loans and facing the possibility of defaulting on my student loans which would lead to a garnishment of my future paychecks.
Something needs to change and it needs to change now. Too many people are affected by this for it not to be something that everyone is aware of. For the vast majority of citizens of the U.S. and the world for that matter, we are not in a recession. We are in a depression disguised as a recession due to the fact that the upper one percent continue to pull obscene amounts of wealth out of the global economy, which ultimately covers up the loss of wealth the rest of us have suffered through. I would like to help in this cause because the alternatives are not the type of person I would like to be. I'm using this forum to literally beg for help from the American people. When good people are forced into bad situations the stitches that have held our society together for so long are at a great risk of tearing open and I do not want to speculate on what the effects of such a societal collapse would look like. One thing I know for sure though, is that such a collapse would come with even more pain and suffering.
DJ's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
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