Ten years after America’s largest financial institutions upended the economic livelihood of millions of millennials entering the job market, a new report from the Federal Reserve confirms what we already knew: millennials are broke.
Post-recession, the banks regained their footing, the housing market stabilized and company earnings rose. But while big industries were thrown a lifeline, a whole generation — the largest workforce in U.S. history — faced escalating college tuition costs with few streams of money. Now, 44 million Americans are shouldering $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans, with young people under the age of 35 holding almost half of that debt.
The Federal Reserve’s report is one more piece of evidence that proves that student debt is stripping value out of our financial lives in tangible ways. Earlier this year, through an analysis that looked at the percentage of people’s paychecks that goes towards repaying student debt, we learned that millennials as a whole, and particularly millennials of color, have the largest portion of their paychecks being siphoned away to pay down student loan debt.
In areas with high populations of low-income borrowers and young people, such as New York City and Washington, D.C., student loan borrowers have debt burdens of 10 percent or higher. To put that into perspective, that’s four percent more than the average American spends on groceries.
Daniela, a 24-year-old Latina staffer at a Washington, D.C. nonprofit with a side hustle at a local farmers market, personifies the student debt crisis. She attended a small liberal arts school to study political science where she racked up student loan debt.
The impact of the 2008 financial crisis on her family’s finances meant that for three years of college Daniela had to take on a combination of federal and private loans to cover the cost of attendance at her school, which at the time clocked in at about $60,000 a year.
Every month, Daniela pays Navient and another private lender $860 in student loan payments, a third of her monthly income. Her D.C.-area rent eats up another third, which leaves the final third of her paycheck for essential living expenses like utilities, food, and health care.
A recent report released by the Department of Education’s Inspector General shows her story is not unusual; Navient’s practice of driving struggling borrowers into expensive repayment plans is widespread. Moreover, her story is emblematic of how racial wealth gaps manifest themselves for students seeking a degree — with young people of color carrying and being held back by disproportionate levels of debt.
Millennials are the most educated cohort in American history, but an uneven economic recovery that forced many of us to take on large sums of student debt, along with an unregulated student loan industry, created a troubling economic situation where millennials like Daniela are earning wages that are lower than what people her age earned in 1984.
This occurred despite the fact that our generation is twice as likely to have college degrees, and work in an economy that is 70 percent more productive. Coupled with rising health care, childcare, and housings costs, the economic priority for young people like Daniela is to achieve and maintain financial stability instead of getting ahead.
Student debt is keeping young people from buying homes, saving for retirement, and fully participating in the economy. Just as big banks and the housing industry got a helping hand, so should student loan borrowers and it’s not too late.
This past election cycle featured a record number of political candidates with student loan debt and who talked about the growing debt crisis as a bread-and-butter financial issue worthy of meaningful policy solutions. These leaders have an opportunity to collaborate with legislators who care about the financial wellbeing of their constituents and legislate with their story, and that of 44 million Americans, in mind.
The new House majority can start by demanding DeVos’ Department of Education issue Public Service Loan Forgiveness for all eligible borrowers, and by adopting policies like student loan refinancing and a Student Loan Bill of Rights to rein in companies who have turned the student loan market into a profit machine.
While leaders work on solutions to this crisis, they should also hold accountable those that are making the problem worse, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosMnuchin, Pompeo mulled plan to remove Trump after Jan. 6: book Republicans look to education as winning issue after Virginia successes McAuliffe rolls out new ad hitting back at Youngkin on education MORE, who is allowing companies like Navient, and others, to profit from the debt crisis.
Our generation deserves solutions. We are not killing chain restaurants, nor are we choosing avocado toast over homeownership, we’re simply living and working in an economy with lower earnings, exorbitant tuition costs, and outrageous levels of student debt.
Maggie Thompson is the executive director of Generation Progress, the youth-engagement arm of the Center for American Progress. Senya Merchant is the program manager for the Higher Ed, Not Debt campaign run out of Generation Progress.