This Time it’s Personal

I work with a guy who amazes me. He is a true undecided voter. He’s a smart guy who can hold a conversation on a whole host of interesting topics, but he will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t pay attention to the news. We were having lunch together the other day, and he was telling me how silly these national conventions are. In his opinion, it makes no difference who wins the election. He explained that the parties are the same and his life will remain unchanged regardless of who wins. Before I had a chance to respond, he knew I disagreed. So he asked me, “Is your life going to be any different if Obama wins? Or if Romney wins? Would your life be worse now if John McCain won four years ago?” The question caught me off guard because it was so direct and because I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that exact question before. Candidates routinely ask the question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” but it’s always on the campaign trail and to large audiences. We don’t usually ask this question in casual conversation. What a great question it is. And what an important question. Here’s the answer I gave.

When I finished graduate school and found my first psychologist job (at the North Little Rock VA Hospital) I was taking home about $3,400 a month in pay. My school loan payments were just under $1,300 a month. More than 1/3 my pay was going towards my school loans. It was crippling. After paying rent and school loans, my family had less than $1,000 a month to cover everything else (i.e. groceries, cell phones, gas, utilities, auto insurance, etc.). Here I was, a 31-year old with a PhD, and I was living paycheck to paycheck. When I made this realization I was angry. I’d worked hard my entire life; I’d always had a job; I’d always paid my bills; and I’d never gotten into trouble with the law. I did my part! So why was I struggling to make ends meet? Why were my wife and I having a conversation every month about which bills to pay. It was preposterous. Where was the American dream? It reminded me of the George Carlin quote, “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Needless to say, something had to be done.

One of the things Obama campaigned on back in 2008 was helping out college students through increased access to student loans, pell grants, and assistance with paying back school loans. He suggested a program where people could have their school loans reduced if they worked in an area of public service that benefitted a high needs area (the military, veterans, lower-income areas, etc.). One of the first things Obama did when he got into office was push for student loan reform. Less than a year later, I saw my school loan payments drop drastically, the direct result of a federal program. Today, I pay $133 a month in school loans, a reduction of almost 90%. This allows me to save for my retirement, save for my kids’ education, and to take my wife on an occasional date for sushi (guilt-free!). In addition to this, for anyone who remains in public service for at least 10 years and makes all of their school loan payments (at the reduced rate), the remainder of the school loan balance will be forgiven. What a program! John McCain would not have pushed for this program. If Mitt Romney wins, this could easily be a program that ends up on his chopping block to offset the cost of giving another tax cut to the wealthy. So did Obama make my life better? You bet!

My friend looked at me and was silent for a while. Then he offered a sly smile and said, “So are you telling me that it matters?” My friend is older (in his 50s), financially stable, and likely will not see any immediate changes in his life if Romney wins or Obama wins. (I didn’t bother to tell him that his kids who are entering college will be affected or that the Medicare he is counting on in 10 years will be affected.)

Just because we as individuals may be comfortable with either outcome, we must consider how the rest of America will be affected by this election. Will other Americans have access to healthcare or be able to get coverage despite having pre-existing medical conditions? Will other Americans be able to afford college? Will other Americans be able to retire at 65, or will they have to work until 75? Will lower-income children have access to Head Start? Will lower-income families still have access to food stamps? And the list goes on. I hope that when we all enter the voting booth we think of more than just ourselves and our bottom line. Even though the differences in our two political parties get blurred far too often, who we elect still matters.

My friend thought for a while and then conceded that “it probably does matter.” However, he was still undecided, saying that he wasn’t familiar with the changes the two candidates were proposing. I offered to buy him lunch next week.

– Nathan

* UPDATE: It’s been mentioned that income-based repayment and tuition forgiveness programs existed before Obama was in the Oval Office (thank you Candace for the post!). Technically this is correct. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act passed in the fall of 2007, but it did not take effect until 2009. Obama campaigned on the bill before its passage and was a major advocate for it. When the bill came to the Senate floor in the summer of 2007 and again in September, John McCain voted against it both times. The bill was introduced by Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California. The bill passed easily but only because Democrats had control of both houses of Congress. There were 226 Democratic congressmen who voted on the bill, and all 226 of them voted in favor of it. Of the 196 Republicans who voted, more than 75% voted against it. So while the bill did not pass under an Obama Administration, it was a Democratic bill that passed with Democratic support. Looking at my post, it certainly looks like I gave Obama more credit than he deserves; but I would like to point out that he continues to advocate for the program and is fighting to lower the cost of education, make available more Pell Grants, and make loan repayments more manageable. Mitt Romney isn’t even talking about this issue. So while I may have given Obama more credit than he deserved on passing the actual bill, my original point still stands.

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5 Responses to “This Time it’s Personal”

  1. Nathan… this post really got my attention and made me think. In someone ways I am like your friend- sort of. I have a political preference and as such, vote in that direction each time. However, I don’t really pay attention to politics. Besides the posts you and Dan put on my Facebook feed and even then, I don’t think deeply about these issues very much. I really have a some-what limited political perspective. However, just like you, I was in the same boat post-doc. Thank goodness, I found an opportunity to pay back my student loans living in rural America. Now instead of scraping by, we actually live somewhat comfortably. Not without sacrifices of course, but we pay the bills, eat well, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Which is a relief after living pay-check to pay-check in St. Louis for one year post-doc. Now that was rough. Thank you, Nathan, for pointing out that Obama did do something for ME that happened to effect me very personally. I needed that light shed. Maybe I should take a moment more often to reflect on my political viewpoint. It does seem to matter.

  2. Hey Nathan, I agree with your friend. Also, those educational repayment programs existed before Obama came into office. The military scholarships are not new and neither are the scholarships/ loan repayment programs for working with the underserved or for the government. Obama’s administration did not invent them. What has changed recently, is that starting this year, the government will no longer offer subsidized student loans for graduate programs. Everyone in my dental school class is freaking out. As you mentioned in this post, education is expensive. Fours years of dental school can rack up $380,000 between tuition, fees, equipment and cost of living here in SF. I am not sure how much medical school is but I am pretty sure it is equally expensive.

    I think it is funny that the administration likes to talk about how health care is right and should be available to everyone whether they can afford it or not, but has no problems strapping the providers with oversized, overwhelming loans.

    On a side note, I like your blog though to be fair I read Lisa’s more often. It makes me want to ask to be sent to Japan 🙂 You guys have such an adorable family

  3. I dig the update, Nathan. Thanks for the shout out *blushes* Actually, I meant all the other loan forgiveness programs even before 2007. Here’s a few:

    1958: The National Defense Student Loan Program (a predecessor of the Perkins loan program established by the National Defense Education Act in 1958) includes loan forgiveness provisions.
    1968: Alaska had a loan forgiveness provision for state loans if the borrower remained a state resident for four years after graduation. The forgiveness was not career-specific. The program ended in 1987, with the transition from the state general fund to capital markets in 1988.
    1982: The military’s Student Loan Repayment Program started on October 1, 1982 after a demo program in FY1981.
    1987: The National Health Service Corps (which was established by the Emergency Health Personnel Act in 1970, PL 91-623) started its loan repayment program.
    1988: Start of Maryland’s Janet L. Hoffman Loan Assistance Repayment Program (LARP) for public service attorneys.
    1993: AmeriCorps established by the National and Community Service Trust Act.
    1998: Stafford loan forgiveness for teachers established starting for loans originated on or after 10/1/1998.

  4. Sorry one more comment to be fair. The Republicans (ie GW et al) gave a huge boon to the banks when they made it impossible to shake student loans when one declared bankruptcy.

    Anyway, this Fall I will not be voting for Obama or Romney. I would have voted for Ron Paul if he made it on the ballot, but since he is not, I will be sitting this one out. Also, I still agree with your friend. Maybe each guy will throw a small bone out to buy votes here and there but in the long run, both parties are the same. No one is trying to really legalize gay marriage, end the drug war, our involvement in foreign wars, or big bank hand outs.

    I think the best we can do is keep our heads down and do our own little things in our personal lives to help America along. Personally, I try to buy things that are made in America when I can get it (it is really hard by the way, even all the classic American brands make everything overseas), and I volunteer in my community. Maybe if we all did small things like that we can make the changes that we want happen.

  5. Nathan,

    Thanks for your post. I think personalizing and explaining one policy difference at a time to our friends can make it clear that voting does matter. Even if their vote doesn’t affect them immediately it will affect their children and a lot of people they don’t know. Seems selfish to me not to exercise the right to vote.

    I understand the parties seem the same at times but one has to drill down to see the differences. I guess it requires a little effort. Change is slow to come and the R’s know it. They have patiently and systematically worked to achieve incremental chnges that have weakened the voice and rights of the people while simultaneously create unimaginable apathy and misinformation. I would urge Candace to vote if for no other reason than to invision how the US Supreme Court will look after a Romney victory.

    Mom

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