Debt

INFOGRAPHIC: The New Indentured Servitude

While President Obama's "Student Aid Bill of Rights" is a prudent and necessary step towards aiding college students, his announcement comes late for the seven million borrowers already indentured to their education debt. In "Forgive Us Our Debts" (Sojourners, April 2015), Virginia Gilbert investigates the cause-and-effect battle of education debt and the way it is hindering a generation of college students. How big is the student debt burden? See below for the poor report card reveal. 

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Faith-Based Groups Earn Millions on Refugee Loan Commissions

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Faith-based agencies that resettle refugees in America stand to gain more than a clear conscience if the United States — after what is expected to be a fierce debate in Congress — accepts a proposed 10,000 Syrian refugees next year.

More refugees also means more revenue for the agencies’ little-known debt collection operations, which bring in upwards of $5 million a year in commissions as resettled refugees repay loans for their travel costs. All nine resettlement agencies charge the same going rate as private-sector debt collectors: 25 percent of all they recoup for the government.

This debt collection practice is coming under increased scrutiny as agencies occupy a growing stage in the public square, where they argue America has a moral obligation to resettle thousands of at-risk Syrian refugees. Some observers say the call to moral action rings hollow when these agencies stand to benefit financially.

Inmates Charged Tens of Thousands of Dollars for Jail Stays

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio released Nov. 9 the first comprehensive study of the practice of charging people in jail for their time there, also known as “pay-to-stay” policies, reports the BBC.

The study revealed that some inmates have debts of up to $35,000, although the BBC found evidence that one man in Marion, Ohio owes $50,000 in pay-to-stay debt.

Pay-to-stay is not limited to the state of Ohio, however. With the exceptions of Hawaii and the District of Columbia, every state in the U.S. has a law authorizing the practice.

It's About Time

gameanna / Shutterstock.com
gameanna / Shutterstock.com

On Feb. 8, civil rights attorneys sued the city of Ferguson, Mo ., over the practice of jailing people for failure to pay fines for traffic tickets and other minor, non-criminal offenses.

And to this I say: It’s about time.

Growing up with an attorney father — a “yellow dog Democrat” one at that — who often took on poor clients in return for yard work and other non-cash payments, I heard early and often about the unfair — and illegal — practice of debtors’ prison. A poor person could not be jailed for failure to pay a fine, my father told me. I trusted his words were true.

So imagine my surprise when at the age of 18, I was arrested for unpaid traffic fines.

At that time I was a stay-at-home mom, trapped in a too-early marriage I would one day leave. My son was probably 6 months old. When the knock came at my door and I saw a police officer standing outside, I didn’t hesitate to answer.

The officer confirmed my identity and told me I was under arrest for failure to pay traffic tickets I had received for driving an unregistered vehicle.

I know that I should have paid the registration. Once ticketed, I know I should have worked out a payment plan. I know I should have taken responsibility for my illegal actions.

But I was young, inexperienced with the system, and very, very poor. Too poor to keep up with even the most modest of payment plans.

Low Wages, Student Debt, and 'The Call:' Financing Seminary Education

Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com
Seminary at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com

The contemporary fast-paced, capitalistic, U.S. free market society has lost the traditional commitments to and comprehension of ‘church.’ Our parents and grandparents understood church as a community to which they belonged. Church was a place where many aspects of social life happened. The pastor was hired by the church people to care for and nurture the community, both individually and collectively. People looked to the pastor for spiritual inspiration, ethical guidance, sound counsel, and pastoral care. The pastor was an extended member of the family and people were happy to make a personal financial contribution to pay the pastor's salary and to keep the church building in repair. Somewhere along the line our society ‘outgrew’ this version of church.

A recent article in The Atlantic titled "Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy" laments the shift away from the traditional model of financing church and clergy as well as the increased costs for training clergy. The average Master of Divinity student (the degree for pastoral training) graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans — sometimes entering into the six-digit category. According to the U.S. department of labor, the median wage for a pastor is $43,800 — not a salary that lends itself to paying off high-end loans.

Degrees Without Jobs

RECENT YEARS HAVE witnessed a deluge of headlines such as “Jobs Become More Elusive for Recent College Grads” from Reuters and “For Recent College Grads, Recessions Equal Underemployment” from Inside Higher Ed—headlines that make even the most hearty college students experience heart palpitations. According to a 2014 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “the underemployment rate for 22-year-olds is about 56 percent, indicating that more than half of the people just graduating end up working in jobs that do not require a degree,” jobs for which they are overqualified.

To put this into perspective: I am a 22-year-old senior at a private Christian university. Of my close friends who graduated in the last year or two, the only ones who were able to find jobs in their fields were education and nursing majors.

Don’t get me wrong, I love liberal arts and feel grateful for the critical thinking skills, study-abroad opportunities, and philosophical discussions that attending a liberal arts school has afforded me. But learning in the same analysis that “only 40-to-45 percent of recent college graduates majoring in communications, liberal arts, business, and social sciences were working in jobs that required a degree” is troubling at best.

 In addition, seven out of 10 college seniors are graduating with an average of $29,400 in debt due to rising tuition costs for an undergraduate education. The National Center for Labor Statistics found that in the past decade, the cost of “tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42 percent after adjustment for inflation.” The situation was a bit (though not much) better at colleges in the private not-for-profit group, like my own, where the average price rise was 31 percent.

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College Debt Factor in Men and Women Entering Religious Life, CARA Survey Finds

Debt from college loans makes some men and women postpone joining a religious community, according to a survey of men and women professing final vows in a religious order.

Ten percent of those who professed final vows in 2013 had an average amount of $31,000 in college debt and the average length of delay was two years, according to “New Sisters and Brothers Professing Perpetual Vows in Religious Life: The Profession Class of 2013.” The annual survey was conducted by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

Read the entire survey here.

Five Things That Will Shock Our Grandkids About Us

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One day, the “us vs. we” immigration debate will seem anachronistic. Lev Radin/Shutterstock

I’m a big fan of the TV show Mad Men, which takes place in the midst of the Madison Avenue advertising agencies back in the ’60s and ’70s. Sure, I enjoy the drama and the “cool factor” of Don Draper and his cavalier ad team. But for me, the most fascinating part is all of the cultural norms of the time that seem fairly shocking now, only a few decades later.

Of course, there’s all the drinking and smoking in the office, but beyond that, the way that non-Anglo employees and the women in the workplace are treated would today be grounds for a lawsuit, if not public shaming for such brazen chauvinism. The thing that’s hard to remember is that, although we see such behavior as morally offensive today, it was simply normal back then. 

Inequality Means More than Just Money

Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website
Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website

Robert Reich pulls up in his silver Mini Cooper, quipping that he and his car are in proportion to each other. Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, identifies himself with the underdog, the little man.

His new movie, Inequality for All, looks into the effects of wealth inequality in the United States. Throughout this semi-autobiographical documentary, Reich consistently leans on his self-deprecating sense of humor by poking fun at his own physical stature; he’s 4’10 ½’’ tall. The jokes, however, do lead back to the heavier issue at hand – the American worker is getting squeezed out of the middle class.

Why the Debt Ceiling Matters

AS FIGHTS ABOUT the budget and other economic issues are again riveting the nation’s capital, the rest of the country yawns. Possible government shutdowns, threats to default on our nation’s debt, and proposals to decimate food assistance for struggling Americans seem to be business as usual in Washington, D.C. These budget battles have become so frequent that it is tempting to dismiss it all as political posturing. But that would be a mistake.

The biggest challenge facing Congress should be a non-issue. The debt ceiling is simply the amount of debt the U.S. is legally allowed to hold. It is about paying off the bills that Congress has already incurred from past appropriations—not about giving permission for new government spending, as many people falsely assume. Congress has raised it nearly 100 times since the end of World War II, but it only recently became a political football. Because the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling and defaulting on our nation’s obligations could be catastrophic, some leaders have tried to leverage it for political gain. After the country came close enough to a default in 2011 to receive a credit downgrade, President Obama has responsibly refused to negotiate over raising it. His assumption is that GOP leaders in Congress wouldn’t throw the economy off the cliff for their own political gain. The American people are left watching this game of chicken and hoping somebody blinks.

While this is clearly a partisan game, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The U.S. has always honored its debts. Should the country default, the market turmoil and long-term effects could be catastrophic for the global economy. Domestically, it could throw the U.S. back into recession.

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