Occupy Any Street: The Deferment of the American Dream

$89,263.66.

That’s how much it cost for me to achieve the “American dream.”

You know that dream, right? The one that says “if you work hard, go to school, and get a degree, you’ll find a good job that you can work for 30 years, retire and live comfortably with fond memories of your ‘hay day’, telling exaggerated stories of your younger years to your grandchildren.” That dream.

I was one of the first people in my family to go to college. My parents wanted me to acquire more of that American dream than they could. My dad was a factory worker and my mom was a banker by trade but spent most of her career as a clerk at the U.S. Post Office. Going to college was the ideal step towards achieving more than they could.

My parents couldn’t afford to send me to my dream school, Spelman College, so Sallie Mae sold me a dream that would make college affordable and provide the resources to cover the expenses that my mom couldn’t cover. They sold me “the dream.” They took this slang-talking, gum poppin’, girl from Decatur and made entering into college easy.

Fast forward 11 years and $89,263.66: I am unemployed and scrapping every month to provide Mustang Sallie her monthly feeding of greenbacks. Between the time I acquired my student loans and today (over the course of 9 years), I’ve been unemployed for nearly three of those years. During the times I worked, I made from about $24K-$42K a year as a rental car associate to a high school English teacher. I’ve cleaned out my 401K and my exhaustive search for employment has kept me and millions of others hungry for more than just a good meal.

Occupy Wall Street, which marked its one-month anniversary October 17, has spawned #OccupyAnyStreet movements all over the U.S. from Atlanta, to Boston, to D.C. People all over the U.S. have grown tired of the hypocrisy, the blatant disregard for American citizens, and the broken dreams, shattered hopes, and trampled promises for a better life.

Today, a Sallie Mae representative told me it would take the next 24 years to pay off my student loans. It will be the year 2035. I will be 53 years old. My daughter will be celebrating her 30th birthday.

Sallie Mae, who accrues interest daily on their loans, has absorbed $25,227.50 in interest from me. That number will increase tomorrow.

According to Sallie Mae, I’m supposed to make a monthly payment of $733.82. When I was working as an educator, and at the height of my earning potential, that was a fourth of my take-home monthly salary.

For the last 20 months or so, I’ve been making interest only payments of $243.58. It’s all I could afford.

For Sallie Mae customers who have taken out private loans with them, they have NO repayment options for beyond the basic 48-month in-school deferment, (enough time to get your graduate degree, which I did) and they only offer a 24-month forbearance for unemployment, hardship, etc.

I’ve had my loans with them for 9 years. I will have them for another 24 years. I currently have them during one of the greatest economic crisis of my generation’s lifetime and Sallie Mae has provided no options, no programs, no assistance for the thousands, maybe millions of customers who need help paying their student loans.

Who is here to help us? Who will aid the American people who chased the American Dream, went to college, started a business or pursued a passion only to get to the end of the road of “promise and prosperity” and have no job or capital to help fund their way from dream to reality? Occupy Any Street is exactly that. It is an occupation, a takeover for the American Dream. Reclaiming the promise made through the blood, sweat, and tears of the people before us. It is not subject to race, nationality, or religion. It is, in fact, a universal promise made to those who call themselves American citizens.

I posed this question to Sarah, my Sallie Mae representative today: “If one of your customers can’t pay their student loan bills, what adverse affects does that have on me and on you?”

Sarah: “Well, if you don’t pay, you go into default and your credit could be adversely affected. If we don’t get payment then it’s a bad debt and we have to figure out a way to collect it or write it off.”

Me: “So, in a lot of ways, if one customer doesn’t pay their loan, it can affect Sallie Mae’s bottom line in regards to assets, liabilities, etc, much like banks who lent to home owners who skipped out or couldn’t pay their mortgages, yes?”

Sarah: “Yes, that’s right.”

Me: “So what happens when 100 people can’t pay? 1,000? 5,000? Nine% of the U.S. population is unemployed. That number is higher in minority communities, the same communities that Sallie Mae “prowls” after in your marketing and lending tactics. (Don’t believe me? Click here.)”

Sarah: “Ma’am, I just work here.”

Me: “Good answer, Sarah! You’re just a peon like me.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever get free of these student loans. They hang over my head like a cloud of death. I pray to God every day for a supernatural miracle of some sort to free me, not from responsibility, but from the burden of pursuing the American Dream. When I’m working, the loans tie up all of my disposable income. They keep me from obtaining a loan for a home. They have bound me from my American right to the “the dream”. They, in turn, add to the economical crisis of people who don’t have the extra money to spend to boost our economy.

In 1931, author and historian James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” in his book Epic of America. His definition of the American Dream expresses some of the core values of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about:

But there has been also the American dream that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

The American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.

32 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his own desires for people to reach the figment of the American Dream from a Birmingham jail:

We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. . . When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asked poet laureate Langston Hughes. He listed some strong images of rotting meat, festering sores, explosions. Every day people, like Dr. Nikea Hurt, who has a doctorate in educational leadership (and is a Sallie Mae customer) answered Hughes’ question from her own experiences pursuing the American Dream: “What happens to a dream deferred? It gets pushed back along with those student loan payments once we realize the American dream is only for those who can afford to dream in the first place.”

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25 thoughts on “Occupy Any Street: The Deferment of the American Dream

  1. Tarig Anter says:

    From my long experience in dealing with governments in more than a dozen of them I assure you that if you slash more than half of government officials or the so-called public dis-service and throw them to the streets you will definitely get better, effective and efficient administrations.

    I am sure they are the source of corruption and corporate greed support. I have never seen in my long life any government department or an office functioning properly.
    They are excesses, idles, and the antithesis of innovation, ethics and productivity.

    People must have regular and uninterrupted access to monitor what are going on in any government office, low or high, including the judiciary, the police, the security, and the military.

    When you deal personally with a successful private business you feel your power as a valued customer even if it was unethical business. But when I personally deal with any government office I feel their arrogance and wickedness; I wish I could spit on their faces.

    The public service anywhere in the world is ten times it’s optimal size, and they are very good in employing the failures and the dishonest for life.

    To Occupy Wall Street and bring social, political, and economic justice people must axe useless officials first.

  2. Carolyn says:

    I can identify with your article “Occupy Any Street”. I have a BS in Communications and MS in Elementary Education. After receiving my master’s degree, I worked at a private boarding school for seven years. Although I enjoyed working at the boarding school, I took a teaching position in the Trenton Public Schools in 2005 so I could make a better salary. I worked one year and received notice of work force reduction. I was called back in 2007 to return to work. Of course I accepted because I love to teach and I needed to take care of my son and myself. I had to start the process of tenure all over again. I made it to 2009, then there was another work force reduction. Since I had not been in the district long enough to obtain tenure, I lost my job again. I was devastated, depressed….I couldn’t believe that I was unemployed again. I have student loans but I always thought that I would be able to teach until I retire along with taking care of all my responsibilities (including student loans) Each time I was laid off, it took me a year or more to get back to work. Currently I am working as a Behavioral Specialist Consultant. I took a $7,000 pay cut. I never thought it would be so difficult to reach my professional goals.
    *******( I decided to become a teacher after working in corporate america and being unfulfilled. When I went back to school for a master’s degree, I could not get reimbursed because my course work was not business related. I was making a career change to become a teacher. ) Additionally, I applied for student loan forgiveness based on having worked in a Title I school however, I received a notice that I was not eligible because my undergraduate loans was too old and the teacher loan forgiveness was for recent graduates after a particular year and date. WHO KNEW??? That was frustrating because I transitioned to teaching as a career change. I was dedicated to teaching. I am not sure what the future holds. I am a dual certified teacher. I am certified in Elementary Education and Language Arts Specialization for Middle Grades 5-8 in New Jersey and Tennessee. But for now I am a Behavior Specialist Consultant for Children with Autism and continue to pay my student loans and other responsibilities. I am thankful for a job but I thought I’d be teaching now….that’s what my student loan investment was for …..if not now …maybe later.

  3. L.A. Bonds says:

    “I pray to God every day for a supernatural miracle of some sort to free me, not from responsibility, but from the burden of pursuing the American Dream.”………….The statement that brought me to tears. Good Read Alisha!

  4. M says:

    Alisha,
    Thank you for sharing your opinions and experiences regarding student loand debt! There isn’t a day that goes by that I dont feel this same feeling;”I pray to God every day for a supernatural miracle of some sort to free me, not from responsibility, but from the burden of pursuing the American Dream.” I just wanted to say that I’m in the boat with you! I’ve been out of college for 3.5 years, 9 months of which I was unemployed. I had to move half way across the country to find a job, thank god I found one, all while shoveling out $1000 a month in student loans. I currently pay $750 in Private Loans and $250 in Federal. However, our “lovely” Sallie is increasing my bill to $850 as of January 1st and they (as you know) dont leave you with too many reasonable options. I’ve considered consolidating however I graduated during the economic collapse and can’t find a fair offer for terms on a loan. I know my options for payment with Sallie Mae but everytime I consider the consequences, the out come seems much more grave when taking into consideration that $650 of my monthly Private Loan payment is interest. And when my plan raises in January, my monthly Loan payment will be close to half of my monthly income! As if matters couldn’t get worse, recently my car dyed and because of my debt I dont believe I will be able to afford another one anytime soon. I travel 15 miles to get to work on public transit and I live in Los Angeles! Can’t afford a car and I can barely afford rent or food. Yes I have income and for that I’m thankful but after our dear friend Sallie get’s her cut I’m scraping by on what is left.

    I implore you and everyone reading this who is experiencing the same hardships to begin writing and telling your story! Please contact your state and local represenatives and anyone you feel should know. If we don’t speak, we will not be heard. There are many people suffering the consequences of our rights being taken away and given over to the financial sector.

    I’ve attached an article that highlights some Acts currently in congress that my help with loan forgiveness. If only we could get congress to agree on something maybe we could a little relief: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20126172-503544/who-will-benefit-from-obamas-student-loan-plan/

    Thank you for your time!

    • Alisha L. Gordon says:

      Thanks for the link — Obama has initiated some great initiatives for those of us with federal loans but boy do we need some regulation in the private loan sector. Essentially, Sallie Mae and other companies that provide private student loans are acting like a bank; and if we can bail out consumer banks or regulate what they do to consumers, then we should be able to do the same for companies like Sallie Mae! Let’s stay in touch! I feel your pain! Are you on Twitter?

  5. Rebel Prince says:

    Alisha,
    These are hard times, we’re probably about the same age (I’m 27) and , yes, this is the worst economic crisis of our generation. I do disagree with you on a plethora of statements you have made in this well written article. You mentioned your “dream school”…why did you have to go to your “dream school”, did you look at the price tag? Or is going to your “dream school” part of the American Dream also? You said that your parents couldn’t afford your “dream school” well couldn’t you go to one of the many University of Illinois campus’? Also, I assume that you are alluding to your youth as the reason you were held at gun point to sign up for these private (I assume) student loans. Anyone with an iota of common sense will tell you that youth is no excuse for naïveté. Did you not read the Truth in Lending document (you received this after you got your loan) which estimates your monthly payments when your loan goes into repayment? I am guessing not. I am guessing that you have 89k in loans because of deferment while you were in school and the forbearances you did on your loans. Did you expect Sallie Mae not to try and make money off of interest? Is this not a common banking practice that has been around since…well…the beginning of banking? Interest is how financial institutions make money. If you’re not ok with that go ask the interest free residents of North Korea where you can find a home in beautiful Pyongyang commrade.

    You see this is the problem with my generation…we feel that we are entitled to everything and that everything should be given to us because…well…we’re trying to fulfill the American dream. Maybe the American Dream is different for different people and maybe, just maybe, not everyone should go to college. Higher education is not a right, it’s not something that is automatic. If you’re not happy with the situation here in this country then do what I did and move to another one; I might not even cost you a penny, I moved to Europe, Austria, claimed political asylum in February of 2008 when Obama got elected. Haven’t looked back since. Alisha, I really honestly feel bad for you and your situation but do the real American thing…take responsibility for your actions and stop playing the blame game.

    • Alisha L. Gordon says:

      Thanks for your post! I guess making monthly payments every month isn’t the “American” thing to do, nor is it taking responsibility. Ah, to live as the 1% does! Duly noted!

    • Samone says:

      You should honestly chose your words wisely you may not be in student loan debt but tomorrow is never promised anything can happen to you and you can be forced to be out of work for sometime and fall behind in any type of payment you might have people are so quick to judge but you can easily be on the otherwise EASILY!!! She wrote that story for the other students who suffer as well !! And you too will be affected by this student loan debt crisis ! Student loan debt is at 1trillion dollars just like the homeowners sank in the crisis and started a recession the student loan crisis will start another recession so everyone will suffer for EVERYONE!!!

  6. Samone says:

    I too owe salliemae I owe double the amount that you owe when I applied for salliemae they had private consolidation that they offered they stopped offering it right before I graduated and wouldn’t know when they would offer it again they no longer offer signature or tuition answer loans any more either but how does that help us what are our options if your a homeowner you have a bailout a store owner you have a bailout if you owe a lot in credit card debt their is bankruptcy I don’t understand why we are being punished for trying to get an education I don’t want to never pay my salliemae loan debt I just wish I could pay the principle at half the amount I pay now there has to be another option I believe salliemae is the reason why a lot of these student loan bills are not being passed

    • Alisha L. Gordon says:

      Oh my. Double the amount? There’s definitely some room for reform with Sallie Mae. She eats up much of the private student loans in the country — there has to be something done!

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