One story from “Generation Debt”

June 27, 2008

I WANTED to add my appreciation of the article "Generation Debt." It is something I have only recently been able to talk about outside of my closest friends. I have realized that millions face the same problems I have.

My story is a bit long, but I feel compelled to tell it. Some components may be exceptional, but much of it will probably sound familiar.

I started college at a good liberal arts university in New Jersey, at $32,000 per year. I was a good student and came from a family with five brothers and sisters, so I received $20,000 in academic scholarships and financial aid. However, that still left me with $12,000 to pay out-of-pocket, plus regular living expenses. I was forced to ask relatives to co-sign loans to get the money I needed.

After two years, the tuition rose to $36,000, and no bank would fund the difference. I moved back home to a local technical school, which cost $27,000, but I was able to get more financial aid and scholarships, so it cost me around $8,000 per year out of pocket. The problem was that transferring from a liberal arts school to a technical school meant that I had to start over, and most of my two years' worth of credits didn't count for much. It took me four more years to graduate with a bachelor's degree.

I spent most of my childhood between sides in a "broken" family, due to a messy and costly divorce, with a single mother, on and off welfare, and my father, who remarried. I turned to sports as my ticket out. Working part- and full-time as soon as I was legally able to work, I was still unable to afford costly camps and personal trainers--things you need just to get your face in front of a professional scout.

I started my college career as a student athlete, looking to continue playing soccer at a Division III school. Division III means no athletic scholarships. This also means none of the "perks" of larger sports schools, so I also worked as much as I could per week (20 hours or more) to pay for my expenses.

I don't consider myself a dishonest person, but to put it bluntly, I had to "pad" my hours in order to make ends meet. This put me at risk of losing the job I desperately needed, but in retrospect, I wouldn't have made it through college if I hadn't been creative with my employers, and had jobs where I could do school work on the clock. My typical weekday would look like this:

-- 7 a.m.-11 a.m. Morning classes
-- 11 a.m.: Sign in to work
-- 2 p.m.: Sign out of work, go to class
-- 3:15 p.m.: Leave class early to get ready for soccer practice
-- 6 p.m.: Leave practice early to shower and run to lab
-- 8-10 p.m.: Work and hope no one comes in, so I can do my homework
-- 11 p.m.: Watch some TV and go to bed

Notice that there was no real time for meals, which were always, peanut butter, ramen noodles or fast food squeezed in somewhere or skipped entirely.

I tried to supplement my income designing Web sites for small businesses and individuals, and even started a business with a classmate, which failed. I constantly dealt with overdraw fees (as high as $33 per overdraw) and borrowing money from relatives and friends.

One really tight year, I was offered a Capital One credit card, which I quickly maxed out and defaulted on. Collections agents called me as late as 10 p.m., called on Christmas Day, harassed my ailing grandparents and threatened to foreclose on my parents' house if I didn't pay.

After finally arranging a payment plan last spring to take care of things, the collections agency filed an injunction with the state of New York, and froze my bank account while I was out of the country to get me to start paying earlier.

DESPITE ALL of this juggling and hassle, I managed to enjoy myself a little, make friends and even land a good job. In fact, in part due to sports, friends and family connections, I was able to get a really good job. Four years later, I make really good money and have a great benefit package. But that's not the happy end of a rough story.

My loans were a patchwork of subsidized and unsubsidized, federal and private, deferred and non-deferred loans. This means that consolidation was not possible. I currently have $75,000 in combined loan debt, spread out over five loan packages. This means I have four payments per month, totaling $550, and the quarterly loan makes it rise to $675 four times a year.

Four of the loans are private and have interest rates as high as 8 percent, which can go up whenever the loan company chooses to raise rates. This is all before rent, a 14 percent interest-rate car loan, insurance, food, gas and other bills. My monthly expenses total $1,900. So my great job is not enough, and I am forced to work overtime whenever I can get it to try and get ahead and save a little.

I've worked hard, been creative, developed talents, gotten an education and even tried to start a business, but at every turn, I have found nothing but hassle and hardship. At any time, a simple car accident could have ended my college aspirations and sent my family into a second bankruptcy. At any moment, my employer could cut my wages or fire me.

I have lived 15 years of my life walking along the edge of a financial cliff, with a network of family and friends tied to me if I fell.

I think people need to know that they are not alone in these battles, and the demands for reforming bankruptcy laws, higher minimum wage and free child care--not to mention single-payer healthcare, a free college education ("grants not fees," as they say in Britain), amnesty for all student debt and a real social safety net--are not just about justice, but about survival in this country.

Throughout this experience, I came to understand that our society is fundamentally flawed. The profit system produces poverty, breaks up families, drives people to extremes and places barrier after barrier in front of hardworking people who only want a decent life for themselves and their family.

This realization is why I became a socialist. I fight in solidarity with the oppression and suffering that many experience in this world, but when it comes down to it, I fight because I don't have a choice.

Thanks to Socialist Worker's coverage on a whole range of issues, I know I'm not alone.
Brian Lenzo, Rochester, N.Y.

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