Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me

An American family’s struggle for student loan redemption


On Halloween in 2008, about six weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, my mother called me from Michigan to tell me that my father had lost his job in the sales department of Visteon, an auto parts supplier for Ford. Two months later, my mother lost her own job working for the city of Troy, a suburb about half an hour from Detroit. From there our lives seemed to accelerate, the terrible events compounding fast enough to elude immediate understanding. By June, my parents, unable to find any work in the state where they spent their entire lives, moved to New York, where my sister and I were both in school. A month later, the mortgage on my childhood home went into default for lack of payment.

After several months of unemployment, my mother got a job in New York City fundraising for a children’s choir. In the summer of 2010, I completed school at New York University, where I received a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature, with more than $100,000 of debt, for which my father was a cosigner. By this time, my father was still unemployed and my mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She continued working, though her employer was clearly perturbed that she’d have to take off every Friday for chemotherapy. To compensate for the lost time, on Mondays she rode early buses into the city from the Bronx, where, after months of harrowing uncertainty, my parents had settled. She wanted to be in the office first thing.

In January 2011, Chase Bank took full possession of the house in Michigan. Our last ties were severed by an email my father received from the realtor, who had tried and failed to short sell the property, telling him “it’s safe to turn off the utilities.” In May, I got a freelance contract with a newspaper that within a year would hire me full-time—paying me, after taxes, roughly $900 every two weeks. In September 2011, my parents were approved for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, and in October, due to a paperwork snafu, their car was repossessed in the middle of the night by creditors. Meanwhile, the payments for my debt—which had been borrowed from a variety of federal and private lenders, most prominently Citibank—totaled about $1,100 a month.

Now thirty years old, I have been incapacitated by debt for a decade. The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives. To this end, I am just one of about forty-four million borrowers in the United States who owe a total of roughly $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. This number is almost incomprehensibly high, and yet it continues to increase with no sign of stopping. Reform legislation that might help families in financial hardship has failed in Congress. A bill introduced in May 2017, the Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy Act, which would undo changes made to the bankruptcy code in the early 2000s, stalled in committee. Despite all evidence that student loan debt is a national crisis, the majority of the U.S. government—the only party with the power to resolve the problem—refuses to acknowledge its severity.

The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives.

My debt was the result, in equal measure, of a chain of rotten luck and a system that is an abject failure by design. My parents never lived extravagantly. In the first years of their marriage, my father drove a cab. When they had children and my father started a career in the auto industry, we became firmly middle class, never wanting for anything, even taking vacations once a year to places like Myrtle Beach or Miami. Still, there was usually just enough money to cover the bills—car leases, a mortgage, groceries. My sister and I both attended public school. How much things cost was a constant discussion. Freshman year of high school, when I lost my yearbook, which cost $40, my mother very nearly wept. College, which cost roughly $50,000 a year, was the only time that money did not seem to matter. “We’ll find a way to pay for it,” my parents said repeatedly, and if we couldn’t pay for it immediately, there was always a bank somewhere willing to give us a loan. This was true even after my parents had both lost their jobs amidst a global financial meltdown. Like many well-meaning but misguided baby boomers, neither of my parents received an elite education but they nevertheless believed that an expensive school was not a materialistic waste of money; it was the key to a better life than the one they had. They continued to put faith in this falsehood even after a previously unimaginable financial loss, and so we continued spending money that we didn’t have—money that banks kept giving to us.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last decade shifting the blame for my debt. Whose fault was it? My devoted parents, for encouraging me to attend a school they couldn’t afford? The banks, which should have never lent money to people who clearly couldn’t pay it back to begin with, continuously exploiting the hope of families like mine, and quick to exploit us further once that hope disappeared? Or was it my fault for not having the foresight to realize it was a mistake to spend roughly $200,000 on a school where, in order to get my degree, I kept a journal about reading Virginia Woolf? (Sample passage, which assuredly blew my mind at the time: “We are interested in facts because we are interested in myth. We are interested in myth insofar as myth constructs facts.”) The problem, I think, runs deeper than blame. The foundational myth of an entire generation of Americans was the false promise that education was priceless—that its value was above or beyond its cost. College was not a right or a privilege but an inevitability on the way to a meaningful adulthood. What an irony that the decisions I made about college when I was seventeen have derailed such a goal.

Letter to an Unknown Lender

After the dust settled on the collapse of the economy, on my family’s lives, we found ourselves in an impossible situation: we owed more each month than we could collectively pay. And so we wrote letters to Citibank’s mysterious P.O. Box address in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, begging for help, letters that I doubt ever met a human being. We grew to accept Citibank as a detestable Moloch that we feared and hated but were made to worship. The letters began to comprise a diary for my father in particular, a way to communicate a private anguish that he mostly bottled up, as if he was storing it for later. In one letter, addressed “Dear Citi,” he pleaded for a longer-term plan with lower monthly payments. He described how my mother’s mounting medical bills, as well as Chase Bank’s collection on our foreclosed home, had forced the family into bankruptcy, which provided no protection in the case of private student loans. We were not asking, in the end, for relief or forgiveness, but merely to pay them an amount we could still barely afford. “This is an appeal to Citi asking you to work with us on this loan,” he wrote to no one at all.

Finally, at the beginning of 2012, my father started writing to the office of Congressman Joseph Crowley, who represented the district in the Bronx where my parents had relocated. In one of these letters, he described watching Too Big to Fail, an HBO film about the financial crisis, which had come out several months earlier. (My parents lost every asset they had, but they still subscribed to HBO, which became more than TV for them, a symbolic relic of their former class status.) The recession was over, officially anyway, and people who had not suffered its agonies were already profiting from its memory. Recession films often took place in the gleaming offices of hedge funds and investment banks, with attractive celebrities offering sympathetic portrayals of economists and bankers—Zachary Quinto, in 2011’s Margin Call, for instance, plays a rocket scientist-turned-risk analyst with a heart of gold, a do-gooder who discovers that his employer has leveraged itself to the edge of bankruptcy. The stars of these films depicted figures who experienced little to no repercussions for their roles in leading the country into a recession, who abused the misfortune of people like my parents—unmentionables who owed more on their houses than what they had paid for them and, of course, who were rarely visited in any of these films. My father described himself and my mother to Crowley as “the poster children for this entire financial event,” by which he meant Americans who seemed to have done everything right on paper, but in doing so contributed to their own downfall. By the time he wrote to Crowley, my father was working again, but it had taken him two years to find another job for much less money. After his run of financial calamity, he knew better than to believe anything good would last. “We are in our sixties and I figure when we get to our mid-seventies life will become difficult again,” he wrote.

Crowley’s office wrote back. It was the first time in about two years that a person had responded to our correspondence with encouragement, or something like it. Kevin Casey, who worked for Crowley in Washington, helped arrange a conference call with government liaisons from Citigroup to discuss a different payment plan. The current monthly payments to Citi were for more than $800 a month, and we were trying to talk them into letting us pay the loan over a longer period, at a rate of about $400 a month. These terms were reasonable enough, but the response to this request was like an automated message brought to life: “We are precluded from a regulatory perspective from being able to do what you are asking,” each of the representatives said. What made these exchanges more ridiculous was the fact that Citibank was in the process of retreating from the student loan market by selling off my debt to Discover Financial, who would give us the same response. We were nothing to these companies but a number in a database. And they fully controlled our fates.

The Unsweetened Release

I used to wonder if the people who worked for these lenders had families of their own, and if they would ever find themselves bankrupt, wondering where they were going to live. Most of all, I wondered what they would do if their own children had to take out loans to pay for college. After ten years of living with the fallout of my own decisions about my education, I have come to think of my debt as like an alcoholic relative from whom I am estranged, but who shows up to ruin happy occasions. But when I first got out of school and the reality of how much money I owed finally struck me, the debt was more of a constant and explicit preoccupation, a matter of life and death.

I had studied English because I wanted to be a writer. I never had an expectation of becoming rich. I didn’t care about money. My M.A. fed an intellectual curiosity that eventually led me to newspapers, and I don’t regret that my translation of “The Dream of the Rood” from Old English to contemporary vernacular was not a terribly marketable or even applicable skill. I understand now the extent to which I was among the most overeducated group of young adults in human history. Still, following completion of this degree, I enrolled in night school because the cost of a French class at New York’s Cooper Union, an action that deferred my having to start paying off the debt, was cheaper than making the monthly payments I owed. Once I could no longer delay and the payments began, a question echoed through my head from the moment the day began, and often jolted me awake at night. I would look at the number on my paycheck and obsessively subtract my rent, the cost of a carton of eggs and a can of beans (my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess), and the price of a loan payment. The question was: What will you do when the money from the paycheck is gone?

I never arrived at an answer to this question. At my lowest points, I began fantasizing about dying, not because I was suicidal, but because death would have meant relief from having to come up with an answer. My life, I felt, had been assigned a monetary value—I knew what I was worth, and I couldn’t afford it, so all the better to cash out early. The debt was mind-controlling—how I would eat or pay my rent without defaulting was a constant refrain, and I had long since abandoned any hope for a future in which I had a meaningful line of credit or a disposable income or even simply owned something—but also mind-numbingly banal. I spent a great deal of time filling out paperwork over and over again with my personal information and waiting on hold for extended periods in order to speak to a robotic voice rejecting my request. It didn’t matter what the request was or who I was asking. It was always rejected.

“Listen, it’s just debt,” he said. “No one is dying from this.”

And so it felt good to think about dying, in the way that it felt good to take a long nap in order to not be conscious for a while. These thoughts culminated in November 2010, when I met with my father one afternoon at a diner in Brooklyn to retrieve more paperwork. My hope for some forgiving demise had resulted in my being viciously sick for about ten days with what turned out to be strep throat. I refused to go to the doctor in the hope that my condition might worsen into a more serious infection that, even if it didn’t kill me, might force someone to at last lavish me with pity. I coughed up a not insignificant portion of yellowish fluid before my father and I entered the restaurant. We sat at a table, and I frowned at the forms he handed me. I started the conversation by asking, “Theoretically, if I were to, say, kill myself, what would happen to the debt?”

“I would have to pay it myself,” my father said, in the same tone he would use a few minutes later to order eggs. He paused and then offered me a melancholy smile, which I sensed had caused him great strain. “Listen, it’s just debt,” he said. “No one is dying from this.”

My father had suffered in the previous two years. In a matter of months, he had lost everything he had worked most of his adult life to achieve—first his career, then his home, then his dignity. He had become a sixty-year-old man who had quite reluctantly shaved his graying forty-year-old mustache in order to look younger, shuffling between failed job interviews where he was often told he had “too much experience.” He was ultimately forced out of the life he’d known, dragging with him, like some twenty-first-century Pa Joad, a U-Haul trailer crammed with family possessions, including, at the insistence of my mother, large plastic tubs of my childhood action figures.

Throughout this misery my father had reacted with what I suddenly realized was stoicism, but which I had long mistaken for indifference. This misunderstanding was due in part to my mother, whom my father mercifully hadn’t lost, and who had suffered perhaps most of all. Not that it was a competition, but if it were, I think she would have taken some small amount of satisfaction in winning it. The loss of home and finances felt at least like a worthy opponent for cancer, and yet here was my father telling me that none of this was the end of the world. I felt a flood of sympathy for him. I was ashamed of my selfishness. The lump in my throat began to feel less infectious than lachrymal. “Okay,” I said to him, and that was that. When I got home I scheduled an appointment with a doctor.

Social Finance Disorder

Much of the dilemma about being in debt came down to numbers that I could only comprehend in the abstract. $38,840 at 2.25 percent interest and a notice that in May 2016 the interest would increase to 2.5 percent. A $25,000 loan at 7.5 percent interest, to which my family and I had contributed, over the course of three years, $12,531.12 and on which I now owed $25,933.66. More than what I started out with. I memorized—or, more often, didn’t—seemingly crucial details about my debt that turned out to be comically meaningless: a low interest loan from Perkins was serviced by a company called ACS, which had rebranded to Conduent Education and sent out notices with their new logo and the message “Soon to be Conduent.” Citibank, referring to itself as “Citibank, N.A. (Citibank),” transferred the servicing of my loans to Firstmark, and I had to create an account with Firstmark. Sallie Mae’s lending arm spun off into an independent company called Navient, which became the country’s largest supplier of private student loans, and eventually sold a portion of my debt to a lender called Great Lakes. In 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued Navient for deliberately creating problems for borrowers trying to pay off a loan by supplying them with faulty information—for instance, according to the litigation, encouraging borrowers to enter payment plans that temporarily postponed bills instead of enrolling them in repayment plans that promised forgiveness after years of steady payment. This lawsuit seemed bathed in significance, but of course resulted in nothing at all, save for a widely circulated public statement from Navient claiming, “There is no expectation that the servicer will act in the interest of the consumer.” When I received a notice from Navient in February 2017 that my monthly payments would be increasing, for reasons I did not comprehend, the email came with a note at the bottom saying, “We’re here to help: We’re happy to help you navigate your options, provide you with resources, and answer any questions you have as you repay your loans.” The company’s motto is, hilariously, “Solutions for your success.”

These announcements flooded my inbox with the subject line “Important Information,” but none of them altered my fate. Sometimes the the monthly payments would go up, sometimes my salary would go up, sometimes I made a check out to a different company. The only stable thing was the money I owed, which never seemed to get any lower. And so the cash would go out to the various lenders with the blind hope that it was the right amount and going to the correct place and, on top of everything, a dreadful anticipation that any day now I would hear from the credit bureau and my life would somehow bottom out. In some twisted way, I wanted it to happen. My mother’s cancer went into remission and both of my parents found, in their sixties, new careers in New York. I maintained steady employment in journalism since finishing school, and in 2016 I was hired as an editor at the New York Times. Was it possible we had become lucky? I had spent so much time wondering what life’s nadir looked like that I was now curious whether it had already come and gone.

In a matter of months, my father had lost everything he had worked most of his adult life to achieve—first his career, then his home, then his dignity.

It was in the summer of 2017, after my father, now nearing seventy, had lost another job, the prediction he made to Crowley about life getting difficult again coming a little earlier than expected, that I finally removed him as a cosigner and refinanced my loans with one of the few companies that provides such a service, SoFi. My wife, who agreed to marry me last fall, would help with the payments when she could. Sharing the burden of my debt with my spouse instead of my parents was a small, depressing victory, a milestone perhaps unique to members of my generation, one that must have carried a similar significance that purchasing a home and having a mortgage had to my parents.

SoFi has not made my situation much more tenable, necessarily. The main difference is that I now write one check instead of several and I have an end date for when the debt, including the calculated interest—about $182,000—will be paid off: 2032, when I’ll be forty-four, a number that feels only slightly less theoretical to me than thirty did when I was seventeen. What I have to pay each month is still, for the most part, more than I am able to afford, and it has kept me in a state of perpetual childishness. I rely on the help of people I love and live by each paycheck. I still harbor anxiety about the bad things that could befall me should the paycheck disappear.

But the so-called Important Information I receive has changed. SoFi, which bills itself as a “modern finance company” (its name is shorthand for Social Finance, Inc.), is a Silicon Valley start-up that offers, in addition to loans, membership outreach in the form of financial literacy workshops and free dinners. Their aim is to “empower our members,” a mission that was called into question by the resignation, in September 2017, of its CEO, Mike Cagney, who employees allege had engaged in serial workplace sexual harassment and who ran the office, according to a New York Times headline, like “a frat house.” (The allegations, according to a report in the Times, include Cagney exchanging explicit text messages with employees, bragging about the size of his genitalia, and the company’s chief financial officer offering bonuses to female employees if they lost weight. In January, SoFi hired Anthony Noto, formerly of Twitter, as Cagney’s replacement. SoFi has also received criticism for its elitism, for lending only to wealthy, high-earning borrowers, to which I can only say this is a category I do not personally identify with, especially after writing the check to SoFi each month.) The news of Cagney came out not long after I refinanced my loans with the company—I became, I suppose, a SoFi’er, in the company’s parlance. Around this same time, I started receiving curious emails from them: “You’re Invited: 2 NYC Singles Events” or “Come Celebrate Pride with us!” “Dear NYC SoFi’er,” one of these emails read, “Grab a single friend and join us for a fun night at Rare View Rooftop Bar and Lounge in Murray Hill! You’ll mingle with some of our most interesting (and available!) members . . .” The invitation cited a statistic that promised “86 percent of members at other SoFi Singles events said they met someone they want to see again.”

I will reiterate that I am a thirty-year-old married man with more than $100,000 of debt, who makes less each year than what he owes. Buying a pair of pants is a major financial decision for me. I do not think myself eligible in any sense of the word, nor do I find my debt to be amusing merely on a conversational level. Still, I felt as if in ten years, the debt hadn’t changed, but the world had, or at least the world’s view of it. This thing, this twenty-first-century blight that had been the source of great ruin and sadness for my family was now so normal—so basic—that it had been co-opted by the wellness industry of Silicon Valley. My debt was now approachable, a way to meet people. It was, in other words, an investment in my future, which is why I had gone into debt in the first place. Would SoFi be this friendly if I lost my job and missed a monthly payment?

Bone Dry and Broken

Let’s say I was morbidly intrigued. The day after Valentine’s Day, I went to a Mexican restaurant in the financial district for a SoFi community dinner—this was not a single’s event, but simply a free meal. There had been another of these dinners nearby my apartment the week before, but it had, to my surprise, quickly sold out. The Mexican restaurant was packed with an after-work crowd in business attire, and SoFi had rented out the back room, where a few dozen people had gathered, all wearing name tags and discussing financial woes. Sid, a software developer from Queens who had racked up credit card debt after college, told me that the debt was a unifying force at these gatherings. “When there’s a break in the conversation, someone can just say, ‘So, debt, huh?’ and things will get going again,” he said. “If we walked outside of this room,” he continued, gesturing to the suits by the bar, “everyone out there would have debt, too. It’s just a little more out in the open for us.”

Despite the name tags, the dinner turned out to resemble something more like an AA meeting, an earnest session of group therapy.

Despite the name tags, the dinner turned out to resemble something more like an AA meeting, an earnest session of group therapy. Everyone had their story about the problems caused by their student loans and how they were trying, one day at a time, to improve things, and no story was exceptional, including my own. Ian, an employee for Google who had recently successfully paid off his debt from a Columbia MBA program, became something like my sponsor for the evening. He said he had a few “bone dry” years, where he lived on Instant Noodles. I told him I had a long way to go. “At least you’re doing something about it,” he said, sincerely.

We sat down to dinner. Across from me was Mira, a defense attorney from Brooklyn, who attended law school at Stanford. Her payments amount to $2,300 a month, more than double my own. When I asked her why she came to this event, she glanced at me as if the answer should have been obvious: she went to law school at Stanford and her payments are $2,300 a month. The table, myself included, looked on her with an odd reverence. She wore a business suit and had her hair pulled back, but I saw her as something like the sage and weathered biker of the group, holding her twenty-year chip, talking in her wisdom about accepting the things you cannot change.

After the food was served, a waiter came by with a stack of to-go boxes, which sat on the edge of the table untouched for a while as everyone cautiously eyed them. The group was reluctant at first, but then Ian said, “The chicken was actually pretty good,” as he scooped it into one of the boxes. Mira shrugged, took a fork, and added, “This is a little tacky, but I’d hate to waste free food,” and the rest of the table followed her lead. Maybe the next generation would do better, but I felt like we were broke and broken. No number of degrees or professional successes would put us back together again. For now, though, we knew where our next meal was coming from.

M.H. Miller is the arts editor for The New York Times Style Magazine.

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