The story is by now familiar. A starry-eyed postcollegiate pounds the pavement in search of her first salaried job, only to discover there are none to be had. As days become weeks become months without income, she's made desperate by the lack of requests for an interview, and in her desperation she takes a job as a stopgap – perhaps the job she worked in college, if not something very much like it.
Trapped in the service sector and subject to all of its many infelicities – shift hours that change from week to week, too few hours to make ends meet or to qualify for benefits, too many hours to consider herself "part-time" yet part-time nonetheless – her debts begins to mount. Soon the grace period for her student loans expires, and Sallie Mae comes knocking for her pound of flesh.
"Welcome to today's labor market," she thinks to herself, "where you'll never get ahead because you're already financially behind the eight ball."
Such grim tales as this abound under conditions of global capitalism. In an economy in which everything is financialized seven ways a Sunday, debt service becomes a fine trick, indeed. Thoughts of getting ahead cede to tactics for staying afloat. And the painstakingly slow economic recovery under way has made this latter task a difficult one. Many job seekers are simply falling by the wayside. The number of student loan accounts in default is thus growing by leaps and bounds.
The old saying, "There are only two certainties in life: death and taxes," could now include a third term: debt. Like death and taxes, debt of the student loan variety abides, awaiting resumption of payments and quietly capitalizing fees and accrued interest all the while.
It's true that you'd have a hard time of it trying to wriggle out of your obligation to old Sallie; you cannot discharge student-loan debt in bankruptcy, and default exposes your federal tax returns and social security payments to the threat of garnishment.
Yet federal student aid you borrow under typically easier terms than loans secured from a bank. And just two years ago, the U.S. government eased its terms even more by introducing an income–contigent repayment plan. "You generally will qualify for income-based repayments if your debt is high in relation to your income," reports an October 2, 2011 Columbus Dispatch article. "Monthly payments won’t exceed 15 percent of discretionary income, which is based on a formula tied to the poverty rate."
Under the income-based plan monthly payments reduce from the 1.15 percent of the amount owed to a mere 0.2 percent.
Of course, with this plan come certain drawbacks. The amount you'll end up repaying will be more than if you remained under the ordinary plan, and the term of repayment lengthens from 10 to 25 years.
After 25 years, however, any remaining amount owed is forgiven, provided you managed to make your payments regularly.
It's heartening to see the federal government taking steps to ease the plight of student loan borrowers. You can't help but think, though, that it could do a lot more. You could reasonably ask whether it might not just be better to wipe the slate clean altogether? After all, total student-loan debt in the U.S. has topped $1 trillion. To declare a jubilee would instantly provide much needed stimulus to a lethargic economy.
This naturally leads to the further consideration as to exactly how much of your future earning power you should have to surrender in order to improve your station. Educated citizens – regardless of whether their expertise is in environmental engineering or public administration – earn more and thus contribute more to the tax base than they would should they be remain stuck in low-skill, low-pay employment. It looks, then, that this country needs to ask itself some tough questions regarding where it would like to see itself in the contemporary global marketplace, which attaches a premium on technological sophistication and high value added.