National Commentary

Student Loan Debt and Suicide

This Wednesday marked Student Debt Day for activists young and old in the nation’s capital and at key university sites nationally. The focus was the congressional action needed to prevent an impending doubling of interest rates on federally-subsidized student loans, a cruel and unusual punishment that one can hardly imagine even the stingiest of Republicans would permit.

The burden of student debt in America today, almost a trillion dollars’ worth, may be the single worst social ill, the one that is stifling and strangling the best and the brightest of the nation’s next generation, turning them into despondent, under-performing indentured servants, even slaves, to banks who crack the whips over them to demand on-time payments every month.

In a story posted online about student loan debt suicides by the Independent Economic Hardship Reporting Project, co-edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Rivlin and picked up by the Huffington Post, one of the some 200 comments was particularly eloquent for its poignancy:

“In all my creative writing fantasies, of all the bad guys and evil masterminds I’ve dreamt up, I will never be able to match the inventiveness and cruelty of the financial institutions in the U.S.,” the writer said.

He was referring to the case cited in the story of a law student who borrowed $69,000 to study law and, subsequently unable to find work, is hit with penalties upon penalties for late payments to the point that he estimates that when he “retires” he will end up owing $1.9 million.

“Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis,” wrote the authors of the Economic Hardship project report. One wrote that when she posted a blog about suicide among student debtors, she was “stunned by the responses.”

“In comment after comment, people confessed to feeling suicidal,” she wrote, citing one person who wrote, “Many of the folks who are incredibly deep in law school debt will end up killing themselves. I think in the next 1-3 years, we are going to see absolutely massive numbers of law school graduate suicides.” Many more spoke to the issue.

Combined with the record numbers of suicides and otherwise psychologically damaged young adults coming home from America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, being unable to find rewarding work, or work at all, we are witnessing a nation almost literally devouring its own young. The pale of despondency is defining an entire generation, and anti-depressant chemical solutions only further doom it to mediocrity.

This is the reality reflected in the data showing that in the last decade, incomes rose only among the top seven percent of the population, but stagnated or declined for all the rest of us.

It raises the question: When is there going to be a Citizens’ Bailout Bill?

How many trillions went to bailing out the banks in the last six years, and why hasn’t any of that helped average citizens climb out of their desperation? Banks have tightened, not eased, access to credit and as home prices now begin to rise, it is again the Wall Street speculators that are setting off yet another financial bubble.

Meanwhile the majority of Americans live “lives of quiet desperation,” clinging to solvency from paycheck to paycheck.

Beyond holding student loan interest rates at current levels, there needs to be a massive easing of the financial burden on average Americans, ways found for personal, mortgage and student loan debt to be charged off entirely.

Cynics blame those who borrowed the money in the first place. But in our economy, for those not born into incredible wealth, the only way to make it is to borrow just for the essentials of life.

It is when the rigid and unrelenting burden of debt bears down on ordinary lives and households, threatening them with ruin, that debt, itself, becomes a very real threat to national security.

The banks and Wall Street try to convince us all that repayment of debt, individually and as a nation, must be our first priority. But that’s only self-serving rhetoric. The country would operate much better if, with the aid of government stabilization measures, it was all just wiped clean.