“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Why Are We Still Paying These D*mn Student Loans
It’s Like, Really Bad
The second most crippling financial burden of the Millennial generation (and Generation X and Generation Z…) is student debt. Second only to mortgage debt, it’s higher than both credit card debt and auto loans.In 2010, student debt hovered at around $830 billion, but as of May 2022, the country stands at a whopping $1.7 trillion in debt.
According to original reports by the Education Data Initiative, the average public university student borrows $30,030 to obtain a bachelor’s degree, private, non-profit university attendees borrow $33,900 and private, for-profit students borrow $43,900.
In the media’s reporting on student loans, there is one statistic that often gets left out; the interest rate. In June 2022, the interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage, the most popular type of loan was 5.72%, a record high since 2009.
The average rate on federal fixed-rate student loans in May of 2022 was 6.42%; not a record high. (Note: This author is a college graduate from the class of 2014 with federal student loans given at a fixed-interest rate of nearly 9%; anecdotally, the highest I’ve heard is 12%, but feel free to add your numbers to the comments.)
Users on social media are sharing their stories, urging students not to make the same mistakes. @baddie.brad voices a common frustration about the insanity of the interest amounts.
A mortgage provides shelter, plus the act of buying property is generally considered a solid investment (save for a few significant periods in economic history). But now that bachelor’s degrees don’t guarantee high-paying jobs, higher education in America is no longer a solid investment.
The Cry To Cancel It All
The idea to scrap it all originated with online support by Robert Applebaum, a lawyer who graduated from Fordham Law School in 1998 with about $65,000 in debt, and his 2009 petition.
In Facebook’s heyday, Applebaum posted a proposal for debt forgiveness on his account, citing how its impact would significantly benefit the economy if former students had several hundred more dollars a month to spend. The post gained over 300,000 likes on Facebook, and it spurred him to create ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com.
“Your student loans are with you for life — both federal and private loans,” he said. “There is no recourse for student loan borrowers if they run into trouble. The only recourse they have is to put the loans into forbearance, like I had to do, or economic deferment.”
The idea snowballed into one of the official goals of the Fall 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. Protestors occupied Zuccotti Park, located in Manhattan’s financial district, to challenge the economic inequality of the Great Recession, corporate influence in politics, and the government financial bailouts. The slogan, “We are the 99%,” calling out how 1% of the country owns most of the wealth, exemplified two out of three Americans’ discontent with the income gap.
Progressive Senator Bernie Sanders adopted the slogan into his campaign for President, along with a strong push for debt cancellation.
As of 2020, “at least one in four student loan borrowers are delinquent, in default, or otherwise unable to pay their loans due to low income or economic hardship.”
In 2020, the push for cancellation began to reach Democratic moderates, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sending out the Tweet: #CancelStudentDebt.
Today, some form of canceling student debt is supported by 59% of senators, including 53% of Republicans, making the move a rare example of bipartisan support.
President Biden’s Promise To Cancel Student Debt
One of the most politically progressive elements of President Biden’s election campaign was the promise to cancel student debt…but did he really promise it?
Pitted against more progressive Democratic incumbents Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden adopted some cancellation of debt, but never explicitly promised to cancel it all.
On November 16, 2020 Biden said in a speech that forgiving $10,000 in student debt "should be done immediately."
But as for who will be doing the canceling and who will actually be forgiven, he has gone on record saying that he is open to canceling $10,000 per person making under $150,000 per year. Sure, any cancellation would be nice, but 45 million people have student loans; assuming they all make under $150k — which they don’t — that would be a cancellation of $450 billion, bringing the national student debt down to a still-whopping 1.25 trillion.
Although more than half of those 45 million people have more than $20,000 in student loans, they are often the least likely to be making consistent payments; 40% of student loan borrowers did not finish their degree.
Those with the highest loan payments often carry higher education loads, like medical school, and are thought to have an easier time paying back loans, thanks to generally higher income. However, that’s not always the case. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez points out that it’s particularly cruel that the $150k income cap would exclude so many of the pandemic’s front-line healthcare workers.
So how close are we to getting a crumb of debt cancellation?
As of today, the Biden-Harris administration lists 7 top priorities: Covid-19, Climate, Racial Equity, Economy, Healthcare, Immigration, and Restoring America’s Global Standing. Although forgiving student loan debt would impact many of these matters, the issue is notably absent from this list, despite its enthusiasm on the campaign trail.
In mid-May, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, and Raphael Warnock met with President Biden to push for $50,000 in relief per borrower - that would wipe the debt of 72% of borrowers, as opposed to the $10k plan’s total erasure for about 33% of borrowers.
Senator Elizabeth Warren has been a consistent supporter of debt forgiveness and has claimed President Biden could do it as early as tomorrow. Getting Congressional approval is not necessary; he could sign it away in an executive action if he so chose.
Federal Student Aid Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray more recently announced concrete plans to revamp student-loan servicing in the coming year.
Regarding the six different student-loan companies handling federal loans, he said the "disjointed servicing system is often confusing for borrowers and, frankly, the quality of work has not always met our standards." Current loan servicing contracts are set to expire in December 2023, but students with loans are not interested in more convenient options for repayment; they don’t want to repay it at all.
The Pandemic Pause
Beginning on the unofficial ‘day the world shut down,’ March 13, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education enacted a moratorium on student loans. Loan payments were suspended, the interest rate dropped to 0%, and there were no collections on defaulted loans.
That hold has now been extended 7 different times. The most recent freeze is currently in effect until August 31, 2022, just two months before midterm elections.
The two-year pause is arguably the best case for debt forgiveness, especially as the U.S. is likely heading into a recession. To restart student loan payments in a time of layoffs would be particularly vicious for 45 million Americans.
Is A College Education Even Worth It?
Women make up about 60% of the university population and The American Association of University Women reports that women hold nearly two-thirds of all student loan debt; Black women hold a disproportionately large amount of that debt. Between the gender pay gap and the racial pay gap, it can be particularly challenging to repay those loans.
Historically, when an occupation becomes female-dominated, pay decreases. So now that the college-educated class is predominantly women, what does that say about the perceived value of an education?
I graduated high school in 2010 with mostly A’s; I was not presented any options besides a 4-year college education. Community college was stigmatized by the media, my parents, and their peers, and trade schools were never mentioned because of my high grades.
It’s been common knowledge for many years that a bachelor’s degree guarantees a “good” job; my first job out of college was bartending. So was my second.
Having a bachelor’s degree did eventually open doors for me, but how many open jobs currently hiring on Indeed require a bachelor’s degree when an onboarding process could teach a new employee everything they need to know to perform their job?
College brochures with sprawling campuses illuminated by fall leaves promise friendship, academic rigor, exciting activities, and high quality of life. They may hold up famous alumni as beacons or boast statistics about job placements, but the old adage ‘it’s who you know’ is still king.
At least 70% of students graduate with debt. As debt rises, that return on investment becomes lower and lower. To escape the madness, a 2019 survey concluded that 86% of young Americans wanted to become an influencer.
Even rockstars sometimes go to music school; it’s no surprise that the influencer life — building a likable personality and recommending products — is one that requires no education; no threat of debt hanging overhead in their prime years for buying property and growing families, or even for the rest of their lives.