Elizabeth Warren doesn’t think generation-Y is the "me-me-me generation" — and in any case, she doesn’t think the government should be profiting on their crippled futures. The over $1 trillion in student debt that crushes young America is the eminent issue on many millennials minds, and the recently elected leftist senator knows it well. In fact, she’s crusaded against rising interest rates, absent bankruptcy protection, and the federal government’s for-profit student loan scheme.
Senator Warren is doing a damn good job on behalf of a generation systemically ignored by wealthy Washington bigwigs. But she could be doing much more.
The student debt scandal is rooted in the very corporate and governmental corruption that Warren is known for challenging. It will take her voice, as the most prominent in this congressional conversation, to educate the public not just on what perpetuates this corrupt system, but on who is responsible for it in the first place.
For uprooting corporate supremacy, Elizabeth Warren has been hailed as one of, if not the primary, congressional ally to this generation of Americans. Peter Beinart wrote in the Daily Beast of a potential presidential run, where he charged that "no candidate is as well positioned to appeal to the young and economically insecure" as Liz Warren — and that "millennials will be her base." She secured the support of 61% of voters under 30 when she was named the first woman senator in Massachusetts in 2012, 22% more than her straight, white-collar opponent, Scott Brown.
Solidifying her role as our crusader, Warren has lead a campaign in Congress to respond to the for-profit student loan scheme by condemning the routine doubling of interest rates on student loans in July, and efforts to overturn the notorious provision against discharging student loan debt in the event of a borrower declaring bankruptcy.
But even though revoking these exploitative policies is critical, they aren’t the only part of the systemic injustice that plagues this generation. Focusing the congressional conversation on these surface-level symptoms subverts the true weight of the issue facing our generation.
It’s not enough to respond to the highest student loan default rate in decades by working to give borrowers the leniency to at least declare bankruptcy — that definitely helps the demographic in the deepest quicksand, but what about all the students who aren’t quite bankrupt, but still driven into poverty by their loan repayments?
Warren and her congressional supporters need to be asking: Why? Why are so many young people defaulting? Why does student debt outweigh automobile and credit card debt? The answer isn’t as simple as Warren’s rhetoric seems to imply: that the blame falls on these high interest rates motivated by a for-profit federally-backed loan schemes. It’s corruption — corruption which Warren condemns when it’s on Wall Street — on the part of everyone implicated in the system, from the college administrators who backed her Harvard Law salary to her fellow Democrats in Congress who have gleefully raised the student debt limit so universities can comfortably raise their tuition.
For students who take out loans of a certain size, the interest rates Warren has valiantly opposed start to mean less and less in the context of the tidal wave of debt they’re already submerged in. Tuition prices, fixed by boards of trustees and college administrators whose salaries can get hiked if they just hike their prices, are what spawn these waves of debt in the first place. That's also what forces students to take out loans the government lenders know they probably won’t be able to repay. Senator Warren recounts stories of graduates plagued by their loan repayments, yet doesn’t thoroughly acknowledge the reasons those loans are so massive in the first place, or the associated costs of students loans that you don’t typically hear about.
Those associated costs that don’t change with interest rates can keep young people underwater until well into their adult life. One testimony on the grassroots education site StudentLoanJustice.org tells the story of Anthony, who contracted a "near fatal illness" leaving him unable to pay off his student loans. What nailed him was the attorney fees: "I hired an attorney who said for five grand I could deal with this. I was in my thirties and accepted into medical school. I needed loans." When that went south, Anthony reached out to a familiar face. "This attorney at Harvard, Elizabeth Warren, was talking about how incredible government collectors were. I contacted her and she simply said to call the Mass. bar. No attorney wants to deal with this."
No indictment on Warren’s character intended — like any check on the privilege of someone speaking for a marginalized group, she just needs to take up the responsibility that comes with the power generated by the mass media labeling her as the millennials’ congressperson. If more students understood why their tuition was so high, why they are given loans they can’t afford, or why they made unfulfillable promises about life after graduation, maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to blame themselves for their own debt. If more politicians understood the same, maybe (maybe) they wouldn’t cater to the special interests of the higher-ed lobbyists solidifying the corrupt system. If more people, of any demographic, understood what underlies the student debt scam, the national conversation could center on holding accountable the wealthy and powerful perpetuating it instead of the young Americans it crushes.
Warren has taken up a noble cause in her fight to give a voice to a demographic that is ignored, if not silenced, by wealthy politicians who ultimately benefit from the for-profit loan scam. Yet when anyone in a position of power claims to understand and speak for the underprivileged, the danger posed by reducing and mischaracterizing their plight should always be on her mind. She’s thus far been commendably critical of Washington and Wall Street, often in the same breath. If only she would deepen that critical perspective and in shake up the conversation around one of the most profound issues that millennials face today — then we might find ourselves with a representative more worthy of the title.