I’m not sure there is any single force more detrimental to social progress than the deep and abiding belief that if you didn’t get help, nobody should.
On Monday, Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren announced a plan to offer relief to more than 95% of Americans with student loan debt, and make public universities tuition-free. Given that it’s a sensible plan that would vastly improve quality of life for millions of Americans at the expense of a small tax increase for the ultra-wealthy, it should come as no surprise that people immediately started being dicks about it.
Fox News suggested that the plan “penalizes those who didn’t go to overpriced schools and honored their commitments by diligently paying their debts,” while the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein decried it as a “slap in the face” to those who have already paid off their loans. Apparently, the best way to honor the hard work and suffering of anyone who has gone before is to make sure that all future generations suffer in the same way.
Why does this happen so often in American politics? Is it somehow related to the psychology of hazing, to the need to reduce cognitive dissonance by believing that what you have is worth what you went through to get it? I’m not sure there is any single force more detrimental to social progress than the deep and abiding belief that if you didn’t get help, nobody should.
Part of what’s interesting about this argument is that it totally elides the question of whether the current cost of higher education, and the attendant mountain of student loan debt currently crushing a generation, is a problem that should be addressed. Most of Warren’s critics aren’t making the case that massive tuition costs and lifelong financial obligation is a social good. They’re simply arguing that it would be unfair to fix it. Where does that leave us? Endlessly grinding the poor into powder, because to do otherwise would dishonor those who have already gone to dust?
Most of us who entered university before 2008 took on our student debt because we trusted what our parents told us: Go to college and you will be solvent forever. Earn a degree and you will always be able to find a job. Below that, another promise: If you have a job you will never starve, never lose your home, never be unable to pay for care if you get sick. These promises are broken, but we haven’t built new systems around our new reality. Instead we’re stuck with debts that only grow and grow, compounding even as we pay as much as we can afford every month. And if your income goes up, so do your payments, making upward mobility nearly impossible.
I’m 31 years old and queer, which means I came of age during a time of enormous transformation for LGBTQ rights in America. More specifically, it means I benefited, directly and personally, from the activism of countless gay and lesbian and bisexual people in earlier generations, who fought so that those who followed after might not have to. When my partner and I had our first child, my lesbian aunt, who never had children of her own, didn’t say “This is a slap in the face to all the gay people who didn’t get to be parents.”
Perhaps this is the great disconnect between Americans: those who see in their own pain an impetus to make things better, and those who see it as dues-paying, a sort of karmic inheritance that must be passed on. I wonder how much of this is tied to a Puritan mythologization of suffering, a belief that mortifying the flesh elevates the spirit. How many of us have justified our painful pasts by attributing our successes to the “character-building” of deprivation or trauma? While it’s true that no one can become a whole, strong person without facing some adversity, it doesn’t follow that we need to fetishize injustice.
There are certainly some extraordinary people who come from extreme poverty and other seemingly insurmountable circumstances, work hard, earn scholarships, take on multiple jobs, and graduate from college with good job prospects and little debt. They are a distinct minority. Not everyone can get scholarships. For those who don’t have family money to fall back on and who are not exemplary students – and the very definition of the term “exemplary students” means it’s not something everyone can be – the options are to sign the promissory note or forego all the many opportunities afforded by a college degree.
Simply put, it should not require extraordinary intelligence or persistence to obtain an education. Nothing so important to economic survival should be restricted to those with vast resources, either financial or internal. Ordinary people should be able to get educations and jobs, people of middling intellects and hit-or-miss work ethics. Yes, I’m talking about myself here: I am not spectacular in any way and I still deserve to survive. People as unspectacular as me, but born in worse circumstances, deserve to survive. As for those with genuinely remarkable drive, ambition, intelligence, and creativity – I want them to have the opportunity to use those things for something more important than paying off a bachelor’s degree. To deprive them of that chance is what truly penalizes us all.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, two really cute kids, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).