Catch-22 for Black and Hispanic students

Assemblyman Ron Kim | 10/11/2018, 12:36 p.m.
These days, as we go into midterm elections, we often hear from politicians and candidates about our rigged economic and ...
Black college students/graduates Freddie Allen/AMG/NNPA

These days, as we go into midterm elections, we often hear from politicians and candidates about our rigged economic and political systems.

If you are unconvinced, just take a look at our nation’s out of control student loan debt. Collectively, we are facing an exponentially growing debt of $1.6 trillion among 44 million borrowers that clearly shows disturbing signs for Black and Hispanic student debtors.

According to research conducted by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, “Black and Latino students are the most likely to take out loans and borrow greater amounts and encounter a disproportionate burden as debt payments after graduation constitute a larger portion of household budgets.”

In a super competitive world that values advanced degrees more than ever, what do you do if you are a Black or Hispanic teenager from a low-income family who got into a good school and had access to college loans backed by the federal government? Most likely, they would take out the debt without thinking twice.

What they probably didn’t realize is that student debt may haunt them for life. Despite difficult life circumstances or even if you seek loan forgiveness through public service, it is almost impossible to be forgiven of this debt.

That means a lifetime of trade-offs between paying the debt and putting down a payment for a home, car, engagement ring, after-school program for kids, senior care for parents, etc.

When students take out loans for their degrees, they hope the world will treat them better and open up new doors for better employment with higher salaries. But the reality is that wages are stagnant, there just isn’t enough money circulating to local economies, and more than 20 percent of past students living in low-income neighborhoods are delinquent in paying back their loans.

So this problem is a clear example of a rigged economic and political system. For the past 40 years, we designed a system that sets up people of color from disadvantageous backgrounds for failure. We practically force them to take out interest-bearing loans to “get ahead” in life knowing that every day more money and value is extracted from their communities.

Already, we have multiple generations stuck in a lifetime of debt, and if we don’t reset and redesign our system, we will sleepwalk right into another catastrophic financial meltdown. But this time, we might never recover.

For these reasons, we must fight for a one-time cancellation of student loan debt that’s managed by the federal government. More than 20 labor groups, nonprofits and community leaders have signed a letter calling on the White House and New York congressional leaders to pledge their support for cancellation of student debt publicly.

If the feds don’t respond, we will move forward in amending the local eminent domain laws to buy and cancel all categories of debt affecting low-income neighborhoods and in particular Black, Hispanic and Latino borrowers.

Some might argue against debtors who decided to take out these loans in the first place. To those who favor the creditors and lenders, they must accept the truth that the system is entirely unfair and rigged, and if we don’t reset, our long-term economy as a nation will suffer.

We must think collectively and liberate our low-income and middle classes with the freedom to move up and rejoin our local economies.

Ron Kim is vice-chair of the Assembly Majority Conference and sits on the following committees: Health, Education, Housing, Social Services, Children and Families, Government Operations and Corporations, Authorities and Commissions.