Yesterday, students gathered in Washington Square Park to advertise their debt. Calling attention to the issue of student debt - and shaking off the stigma many associate with having such debt - these demonstrators wore their debt across their chest.
Their shirts read: "$80,000." "$200,000." "An Arm and a Leg." "Too Much."
It might not have resembled the squares of Egypt - or even the streets of Madison, Wisconsin where protestors rally against the governor's threat to call the National Guard against workers. But if organizers are successful, this will just be the first of many campus demonstrations to raise an important issue: that we're bankrupting our next generation even as we're "investing" in them.
This event was coordinated by Andrew Jenks, a filmmaker and protagonist of an MTV documentary series in which he explores the lives of young Americans. As he traveled the country, he heard a familiar concern: the rising cost of education. But he also heard a new twist on it: not that students couldn't get the money to get an education, but that they couldn't escape their debt burden once they entered the workforce.
This isn't just anecdotall. More than ever, we're becoming aware of the societal hazards arising from our debt-burdened culture. Countless Americans are paying off mortgages they can no longer afford on houses that have lost their values. Many more are caught in cycles of credit card debt as "easy money" leads to exploding interest rates and endless attempts to dig out of the hole. Medical bills often leave Americans with debt burdens they can't even conceive of tackling.
Student loan debt, though, now stands at a greater total than credit card debt nationally. It is often viewed as "good debt" since our country values education, and there is a special emphasis on the need for higher education. But it's turning out graduates who are actually carrying a very bad debt. Unlike other countries with policies to delay student loan repayments when the debtor is unemployed, or bases payment levels on income levels, our policies allow for a more rigid repayment policy. Even bankruptcy isn't a cure for student debt.
The President calls on us to out-educate and out-innovate other countries, but our college-educated graduates, entering a workforce with no jobs, have no room to innovate. With deep debt, relentless payments and heavy fines, there is a disincentive to work for cheap on a new start-up. Working for non-profits and community organizations looks much less appealing. And forget the kind of creative (and often "underemployed") pursuits that may to cultural, entrepreneurial and even lucrative contributions to the nation's economy.
The Wall Street Journal reported on a doctor whose debt had ballooned to $550,000, ruining her credit rating and her chances to really invest in her community and her own stability, despite now having regular, professional employment. While this is an extreme case, it's not unusual for graduates to find themselves in this debt trap. And it's all too common that the rules of the debt game aren't serving our society.
The doctor in the article describes the shame she felt at this situation. It's that feeling that can leave this issue in the shadows, which is what the students at Washington Square Park were challenging. They didn't have an answer to this problem - but by demonstrating, they hoped to help more Americans see the problem. Maybe the solution is in a massive move to reassess existing debt. Maybe it will be a transformative approach to debt policies. First, though, it needs to be discussed.
Jenks started at NYU because it was his alma mater. He and other organizers hope to foster these demonstrations elsewhere. It's not yet an urgent call to action that floods the Wisconsin statehouse with protestors. But it's an important prompt to a conversation about ensuring the next generation we're investing in is capable of investing back into America.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."