The Crushing, Ever-Present Weight of Debt

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After both of M.H. Miller’s parents lost their jobs during the financial crisis and his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, Chase bank foreclosed on the family home. To create a better life for their son, the family had borrowed to cover his education, resulting in crushing student loan debt to faceless financial institutions unwilling to refinance to help the family make ends meet. In this harrowing piece at The Baffler, M.H. Miller shares his family’s story of financial collapse and explores the crippling effects of long-term debt.

After the dust settled on the collapse of the economy, on my family’s lives, we found ourselves in an impossible situation: we owed more each month than we could collectively pay. And so we wrote letters to Citibank’s mysterious P.O. Box address in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, begging for help, letters that I doubt ever met a human being. We grew to accept Citibank as a detestable Moloch that we feared and hated but were made to worship. The letters began to comprise a diary for my father in particular, a way to communicate a private anguish that he mostly bottled up, as if he was storing it for later. In one letter, addressed “Dear Citi,” he pleaded for a longer-term plan with lower monthly payments. He described how my mother’s mounting medical bills, as well as Chase Bank’s collection on our foreclosed home, had forced the family into bankruptcy, which provided no protection in the case of private student loans. We were not asking, in the end, for relief or forgiveness, but merely to pay them an amount we could still barely afford. “This is an appeal to Citi asking you to work with us on this loan,” he wrote to no one at all.

Still, following completion of this degree, I enrolled in night school because the cost of a French class at New York’s Cooper Union, an action that deferred my having to start paying off the debt, was cheaper than making the monthly payments I owed. Once I could no longer delay and the payments began, a question echoed through my head from the moment the day began, and often jolted me awake at night. I would look at the number on my paycheck and obsessively subtract my rent, the cost of a carton of eggs and a can of beans (my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess), and the price of a loan payment. The question was: What will you do when the money from the paycheck is gone?

I never arrived at an answer to this question. At my lowest points, I began fantasizing about dying, not because I was suicidal, but because death would have meant relief from having to come up with an answer.

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