Politics and Prejudices: Screwing over our future

Want to hear something funny? Our lawmakers didn’t have the guts to come up with $1.2 billion a year to fix our rotten roads.

They shoved the decision on to the voters, who seem likely, based on the polls, to also vote against sanity next month.

Many complain the extra penny on the dollar is too much to pay. Yet we're about to drown in a debt a thousand times larger that is an economic ticking time bomb that may both wreck our economy and destroy any chance future generations have.

And just about nobody is paying any attention at all. I'm talking about the snowballing student loan debt.

We've set up a system where students can't possibly afford higher education on their own. At the same time, good-paying summer jobs have just about become extinct. Nor can almost anyone who's not a drug dealer hope to achieve a middle-class lifestyle these days without higher ed of some kind, sophisticated vocational education included.

So we make our kids borrow up to their necks — usually without the least bit of guidance on how to spend the money.

Then we make it harder and harder for them to pay it back. To her credit, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) is outraged.

"Did you know you can refinance a car loan, an equity loan, you can refinance your mortgage — but you can't refinance a student loan?" she told me. Dingell, who this year succeeded her legendary husband, John, in Congress, was both appalled and indignant.

Everyone else should be too. Along with screwing over the lower classes, we've been screwing over college students worse than almost anyone ever imagined. The cost of getting a college degree has gone up more than 1,000 percent since the early 1980s.

By comparison, the average cost of housing has barely doubled. The University of Michigan and Michigan State both admit that four years at their fine institutions will run you well over $100,000.

Bill Gates' kids won't have to worry. The rest of us should be worried — and mad. Even at Wayne State, where tuition is somewhat cheaper and most students live at home, it's common to have kids finishing a B.A. $25,000 to $40,000 in debt.

"The average student now graduates owing $30,000," Dingell told a panel of students at U of M two weeks ago, where she was holding a roundtable with students on the issue.

What she didn't say is that a few students — between 1 and 3 percent — come away owing $100,000, or more. How are they going to be able to pay that back?

Most of them won't.

Won't, because — how can they? New graduates are lucky to get $30,000-a-year jobs. Good luck paying back a loan that big or bigger. And, oh yes, buying a car, house, maybe having your own kids. Overall, the nation's student loan debt is now $1.3 trillion — and soaring. Eighty percent of it has been racked up since 2008.

Dingell told me she was surprised to hear from the U of M students themselves that they badly needed a course in financial literacy, probably in high school. Students are borrowing money at 7 percent interest, and using it in some cases for other things besides tuition because they don't understand the debt burden they'll be saddled with the moment they finish school.

For baby boomers like Dingell (and me), especially if we don't have children, this crisis may come as a bit of a surprise for one reason: We had it far easier. Tuition for us was far cheaper, scholarship money easier to come by, and you could get a job on the line in the summer and make enough to pay for it all.

To her credit, Dingell is trying to do something about this. She is a co-sponsor of a bill designed to ease that just a bit. Called the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, it would allow students and former students who have borrowed money to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, like any rich homeowner can do.

This should be a no-brainer. Sadly, its prospects are uncertain. Dingell, like the bill's main sponsor, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, is a Democrat. Republicans are firmly in control of both houses of Congress, and they haven't been eager to help students.

Last year, the much-adored U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a similar bill, but it went nowhere. And that was when Democrats still had a Senate majority.

Congressman Charles Rangel of New York has an even better bill, and one that makes perfect sense for a society that still believes it has a future: His bill would make interest on student loans tax-deductible. But few think his bill has any chance at all.

So that's how we treat the next generation's hopes and dreams these days. This entire situation, to use elegant academic terminology, is fucked up beyond recognition.

Don't like that language? It is far less obscene than the insane reality. We are doing our best to deny our children and grandchildren an education and decent jobs, and to make sure that even if they get them, they will be kept down by the need to pay their student loans.

Forty million people already owe student loan money. Some of them are said to be putting off marriage and families. Some have no jobs and are in default, or on the lam, so their wages won't be garnished. Yet these are the people who, in many cases, we need to make a good living and pay into the system, so we aging selfish boomers can get our meds in a few years.

Debbie Dingell is urging students — and their parents — to think outside the box and build non-traditional grass-roots coalitions to lobby congressmen of both parties to do something about this.

Somebody damned well better, if we are to have any future at all. Congress is full of sleek baby boomers and rich kids who didn't have to saddle their futures with debt to get an education.

Those who are young today are, in the long run, more important than they are. It's time we all see that — and make them see it too.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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