Sunday, March 24, 2013

My calling is to serve God...and my student loan debt

If you haven’t been paying attention, one of the cuts from the “sequester” was to funding for military tuition assistance programs.  One of my buddies from college is an army vet who has served multiple tours of duty. He was taking advantage of the tuition assistance program to complete a Master’s degree.  Without the financial assistance from the program, he will have to put his schooling on hold.

Thankfully for his sake, the Senate decided to reinstate the program, inserting a measure to re-fund the program as part of a bill to fund the federal government through the rest of the year. Now, it’s not a sure thing, because the Republican controlled House is unpredictable at best, but being that helping our military vets is politically expedient, my guess is that this measure will be enacted.

On some levels, I wasn’t really that sorry for my friend when I heard that he was losing funding for his education, for I thought he might get a taste of why myself and my fellow seminarians have been struggling with for years—trying to figure out how to pay for our own theological education.  I am fortunate that my school, Phillips Theological Seminary, is very affordable and recently even lowered tuition. Along with scholarships I received from the seminary, I have been awarded help from my denomination as well. For me, paying for my theological education hasn’t been nearly as hard as paying for life while I complete that education.

I am far from alone in this struggle. I know of fellow students who are serving two, three, even four churches in order to cobble together one full-time salary.  Once finished with seminary, despite having an advanced degree and a respected position as an ordained reverend, graduates are again piecing together multiple positions or even passing up church jobs because churches can’t pay them enough to repay their student loans (payments of which often comprise 10% of earned income).

I have to wonder what makes what my friend does in the military more valuable to our society than what I will do—working for a church, for a non-profit, in education, some of the above, all of the above? Who gets to make that decision? Why is it that my classmates and I have to take out loans upon loans (which are no longer subsidized thanks to the GOP) to pay for our education while an 18 year old can get college money for volunteering one weekend a month. Do you know how many weekends ministry students volunteer for churches!?

My friend and his fellow soldiers deserve the commendations they receive for serving, and they are not the only ones who serve our country. Anyone who invests their time and talents into a career that is about more than just money is invaluable to America.  I’m talking about teachers, medical service providers, child care workers, firefighters, police officers, artists, and of course pastors and non-profit community workers.  People like this are priceless pieces of our society—their value cannot be measured.

Unfortunately, our society has things backwards and values money-makers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet over people who dedicate their lives to helping others. It shouldn’t be that way.  The Bible tells that we shouldn’t seek after money or possessions, but rather invest in that which last lifetimes.  As a society, we should be investing in people who dedicate their lives to serving others, who choose careers which will have an impact will last a lifetime—or in the case of minsters, an eternity.

That means more scholarships for people going into non-profit work, loan forgiveness for folks who choose careers that are about serving others, and grants for those who inspire us in ways that can’t be measured (pastors, artists, musicians).   That means more funding for higher education in general. 

In reality, this looks like what Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass recently proposed in the “Student Loan Fairness Act of 2013.” This would create a “10-10” standard in which students would be required to pay 10% of their discretionary income for 10 years, after which the remaining debt would be forgiven.  It would also permanently cap federal student loan interest rates at 3.4%, suspend interest rates while borrowers are unemployed, and reward graduates for entering public service.

This stands in sharp contrast to what Republicans recently tried to do, in repealing the Student Loan Reform Law.  This law takes the loan processing out of the hands of banks and uses the savings to increase Pell Grant scholarships to the tune of $61 Billion. It also lowers monthly payments and shortened the debt forgiveness timeline.  Yet the GOP wanted to get rid of this.  Lest we forget VP candidate Paul Ryan wanted to double interest rates on student loans while giving tax break to millionaires.   

That is why I selfishly wanted my friend to lose his tuition assistance, for I thought he might see which political party really cares about the “little guy”—and perhaps that might influence his decision making next time he goes to the polls. That is why, what Congresswoman Bass proposed, and more, would begin to re-order towards a society which values service to others as invaluable.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

If the US Budget was a family budget, it would look like this…

'Family Portraits' photo (c) 2012, vonderauvisuals - license:
I’m sure you've heard it before…Politicians like to cite the mantra that the US government needs to behave more like a family budget and that the government, like families, needs to learn to live within its means.  Personal finance “guru” Dave Ramsey suggests that the government, like any family, needs to say “enough is enough.” This “family budgeting” talk isn't just coming from Republicans, even President Obama has made the comparison.  The problem is that the comparison just doesn’t work, it’s a poor analogy (see here, and here, and here as well).  But, I’m not going to write why I disagree with the analogy, rather I’d like to paint a picture of what the US budget would look like if reduced to a single family.
Let’s start with the kids, for it’s always the kids that conservatives name when critiquing government spending. We are “bankrupting future generations” they say by borrowing money that will eventually have to be repaid. 

So here’s what our family can do. In order to save money, the family stops paying for as many meals for their daughter, stops saving for her college education, stops paying for her to go to pre-school, and stops paying for her medical coverage amongst other things. Hey, we've got to live within our means, right? The daughter, who happens to be an ethnic minority, is developing Diabetes because she’s just eating a bunch of junk food, because she can only afford the dollar menu at the fast food joint, and she doesn't get any opportunity to exercise.  Despite clear evidence that these fatty foods are hurting her health, dad refuses to limit her access to them or provide her with anything better to eat. We've got to live within our means though, and that means making tough choices.

Thankfully, because of the cuts to spending on the sister, the family can afford to send the white son to a private school, save for an Ivy-league education, establish a 7 figure trust fund for him, get him the best medical care money can buy, and take him out every week to the best restaurants in town among other things.  He’s learning that it’s his hard work and personal responsibility that are getting him success in life—or his father’s fat wallet. Either way, thank goodness we are making the tough decisions now so we don’t “bankrupt” his future.

Let’s look at mom next.  Mom is trying (but failing) to pay for medical procedures like breast cancer screenings, well-woman visits, breastfeeding support, and contraceptives (i.e. what Obamacare provides). Problem is dad says we just can’t afford for mom to get all this coverage.  Funny thing is that dad refuses to pay for mom’s contraceptives, yet then critiques her for being “irresponsible” when she gets pregnant.  Further, dad is absolutely insistent that she keep the baby she can’t afford to pay for and didn't want. Dad grumpily obliges to give mom some help with nutrition during the pregnancy, but as soon as the baby is born, dad refuses to keep footing the bill and disparages mom for being a “welfare queen.”  He demands she gets a job, yet refuses to help out with child care and could care less that she actually gets paid a decent salary or even an equivalent salary to men that are doing the same job as her. If only she would take some personal responsibility.

Dad is doing quite well thanks to his “hard work and ingenuity” he likes to say.  He doesn't like to mention the free public education he received or the fabulous college education his own parents paid for, nor does he like to bring up how he got his good job thanks to a contact his parents had in the firm.  Further, dad gets real upset when anyone starts talking about “redistributing” his income to pay for his daughter’s food or clothing.  Dad says he’ll lose all motivation to work hard if he’s forced to commit more of his salary to providing for his daughter. He likes to say that if he’s just allowed to keep more of what he makes money will just “trickle down” to his daughter. All in all, he likes thing the way they are. His insurance pays for his Viagra and Cialis (which came in quite handy when he was impregnating mom), he gets paid more than his female counterparts on average, and his company gets a nice tax break which in turn pads his annual bonus and retirement account.

'budget' photo (c) 2012, 401(K) 2012 - license: also spends a lot of money on home(land) security which he says is essential to keep the family safe. It’s “defense” spending he says.  Forget that he spends more on home security than the rest of the neighborhood combine. Forget that he pisses off some of the neighbors when his remote control helicopters (aka drones) damage their property in the name of destroying “threats” to his security.   Forget that he’s spending $1 Trillion on a single plane. Oh, and if anyone dare threaten to reduce the money he can spend on security, he’ll keep paying for the expensive gadgets and instead cut the salaries of the armed guards he employees and/or make them work longer.

Let’s not forget about grandpa, whose future isn't so rosy. He may have a decent pension from his time as a teacher—but dad doesn't think he deserves so much and seeing to it that the pension is reduced. Grandpa does have some medical coverage, but again dad doesn't want to pay for what grandpa can’t afford and would rather just give grandpa a couple of bucks each month and let him go buy his own insurance (which is far more expensive and he likely can’t get because of his past heart attack).  Dad complains about possible rationing of end of life care, but misses the fact that because grandpa can’t afford adequate health care now, his life will probably end early. Grandpa will end up stashed in some old person warehouse (aka “nursing home”), rotting away due to inadequate care and poor staffing.  But remember, our family values all life.

Grandma is doing much better, no thanks to grandpa’s dead weight.  She’s pretty upset about all this talk about the capital gains tax going up.  She’s worked hard to buy and sell stocks so it’s wrong that she should have to be taxed on money she just sits and waits around for each month. Who cares if the workers in the companies she has stock in pay a much higher rate.  She doesn't really see it as a problem that she’s getting rich off their hard work. Rather, she’s convinced her wealth is due to her own “ingenuity” and “financial acumen.”  Her future is set with her low-tax nest egg, multiple houses (of which she writes off the interest), and the best medical coverage money can buy.

This is what the US government budget would really look like if it was a family budget. But, maybe the conservatives are right. In the end, maybe we do need to run the government like a family.  Maybe the American budget would be better in the end if we made the “tough” decisions.  Perhaps, but I can tell you this, we’d be one big, dysfunctional family. No moral person would dare treat members of their family like this, so we can’t let politicians get away with talk of doing the “right, moral thing” in cutting spending while at the same time talk about running the federal budget like a family.  

If politicians or other leaders want to talk about America being a family, that’s fine, but then it’s about time we showed the same love and care to ALL members of our family.