I am a mother of two kids, and my student debt is crushing my family. Forgiving student loans will help us escape the cycle of poverty.

  • Biden has pledged to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt, but it is not enough. 
  • After graduating college, I was hit by legal fees from my divorce which caused me to default on my loans. 
  • I went to graduate school to get a higher paying job, but now the interest on my loans is burying me. I want a better future for my kids. 
  • Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and fellow with Community Change. She lives in Missoula, Montana. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Money to move out was at the top of my oldest teen’s Christmas list this year. Alex is a senior in high school and should be applying to college. But due to my own crippling student loan debt, my kids’ choices are limited. For now, Alex is choosing not to attend college for the foreseeable future. This choice hurts.

I don’t have the resources to give Alex money to move out. Instead, on Christmas morning, I looked on with mortification as my kids unwrapped identical gifts, their faces shining with delight. They were excited to be receiving new sheets.

My kids have had the same old sheets covered with pastel butterflies for over twelve years. As a single parent, paying my bills and staying out of credit card debt while raising two kids is an unrelenting high-wire act. Paying for dance or Taekwondo means I don’t replace our towels and sheets very often. We eat a lot of beans and rice. College accounts and retirement funds are the stuff of fantasy.

Like many other Americans, I’m what you’d call a permalancer: I juggle part-time jobs and short-term contract gigs to keep myself afloat. In 2018, I made a grand total of $18,811 for the year. In 2019, I managed to make $22,908. Going without is my main strategy, but this approach can’t solve my student loan debt. Repaying the $81,000 I owe feels utterly impossible.

Forgiving only $10,000 isn’t enough

As a senator in 2005, President Joe Biden supported a bill that expanded the amount of loans students could borrow while simultaneously making it nearly impossible for people with enormous student loan debt to declare bankruptcy. This bill helped loan companies but contributed to what has been a mounting student loan crisis for the past 15 years. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who opposed this bill in 2005, is once again pushing Biden to reverse this legislation. So far, Biden has only pledged to forgive $10,000 of everyone’s student loans. 

In early February, Sen. Warren, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Rep. Ayanna Pressly reintroduced a student loan forgiveness resolution that calls on Biden to forgive $50,000 for each federal student loan borrower through executive action. During a town hall on Tuesday night, however, President Biden claimed he lacked the authority to forgive more than $10,000 per borrower — the senators and representatives behind the proposed resolution maintain that Biden does have the authority.

As a borrower, I call on President Biden and Congress to go further. Forgiving $10,000 of my student debt doesn’t even cover the interest I’ve accrued. And while forgiving $50,000 would be a significant step in the right direction, many borrowers would still struggle under the weight of their remaining balances.

I was buried in legal fees before I could pay off my loans 

I graduated from a small college in New Mexico in 2007 with a total of $24,950 in student loan debt. The average student loan debt for an undergraduate degree in the US is $25,921, so I was happy I’d kept it under the average, while raising two children under the age of four. I got divorced six months after graduating, but soon secured a stable job that paid $26,000 a year.

When my grace period ended and I started making small payments towards my student loans, my abusive ex-husband began taking me to court. His court filings were aggressive and frequent — roughly every four months, for five years. I soon realized I would need an attorney to deal with the onslaught of litigation. 

Retaining legal counsel is costly, but with careful budgeting I managed to pay off over $60,000 in legal debt. Still, there was nothing left for student loans, and I began defaulting on them. One loan company even sued me. They stipulated that I face them in court or add thousands of dollars onto what I already owed. I was no match for a student loan company, so I took the latter option and added more debt to my debt.

In the 1960s college tuition was low enough that a student could work part-time and easily pay it off. With stagnant wages, fewer salaried jobs, and soaring costs of living, this is no longer true. Student loans make a promise they can no longer keep: if we invest in our future, we’ll reap the rewards. But this future doesn’t exist anymore. Those of us who strive to pay off our loans against all odds are often pulled under when any other financial predicaments crop up. For me, it was vexatious litigation, but for others it is medical emergencies or car trouble.

When I looked for higher-paying work, every job in my field required a master’s degree. I looked for months before deciding grad school was my ticket to financial security. When I got in, I moved myself and my kids — then six and nine years old — to Montana. I received enough aid to cover tuition, but still needed to take out more loans to cover rent and bills. In 2015, I finished graduate school owing $43,441. Despite the higher cost of living in Missoula, Montana, I was able to keep my debt under the average of $66,000 that borrowers typically accrue for a master’s degree. As a single parent, I worked as much as I could outside of classes to make this happen.

Five years later, the interest rates on my loans have snowballed and I now owe almost $81,000 — almost $13,000 more than I took out in the first place. And the numbers keep rising.

Student loan debt is tied to inequality

As reported in 2020, women hold two-thirds of student loan debt. Additionally, a 2019 study reveals that student loan debt is far greater for Black Americans: “The typical Black student borrower took out about $3,000 more in loans than their White peers; yet 20 years after starting school, the typical Black borrower owed about $17,500 more than their White peers. In that time, nearly half of White borrowers were student debt free (49 percent), while just a quarter of Black borrowers were able to pay off all of their loans (26 percent).”  

Not only would forgiving student loans keep more people housed and fed, but it would also help narrow the gender wealth gap and the racial wealth gap. 

Naysayers argue that student loan forgiveness wouldn’t be fair to people who have paid their loans off, but it’s a move that would boost the economy and benefit everyone. A 2018 report concludes that universal student debt forgiveness would increase the GDP by roughly $100 billion per year and would result in the creation of up to 1.55 million jobs per year. As the Debt Collective, a union organizing around debt forgiveness, writes, “Most people are not in debt because they live beyond their means; they are in debt because they have been denied the means to live.” This should not be a partisan issue.

While my kids received more than just sheets for Christmas, I remain troubled by their delight in a basic household item. I want more for them. I want Alex to be able to attend college, but I don’t want either of my kids to be trapped by a predatory system designed to keep them pinned down by crippling debt. Full student loan forgiveness would give families like mine more opportunities, and help my kids escape the cycle of poverty.

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