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Plea to President Obama to help the poor afford college (essay)

Enslaved
January 21, 2013

The Honorable Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C.  20500

Dear Mr President:

Abolition.  Emancipation. 

I hereby enter these words into the public debate for your second term.  Whatever you say later today in your own Second Inaugural, you have my word that I will be loud and relentless with these words during your second term:  Abolition. Emancipation.   

Why? By my count, our country has more Americans enslaved in your presidency than the 4 million slaves counted in the 1860 U.S. Census.  I am looking at the 9.4 million students on Pell Grants, with little hope of an education even close in quality to yours at Columbia and Harvard or mine at Williams and Yale. 

My outrageous analogy follows the federal math no one has any plans to change.  This nation first counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. That’s 60 percent. The maximum Pell Grant for these students is $5,500, while the federal subsidies to all undergraduates at your Columbia and my Williams are often five times that – two-fifths.  In federal tax benefits alone, Mr. President, every undergraduate at Columbia and Williams receives benefits ranging from $15,000 to $35,000 depending on your assumptions.  For here I’ll pick $25,000 and call it two-fifths. 

As the start of my “relentless” campaign I repeat:  No one has any plans to change this situation in the most basic need for a just society:  education. No one has any plans, even though everyone in the chambers and offices behind you this morning knows the outcome for these people and for the nation of this plan. 

As the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, the chains are gone. Enslavement remains, as death by poverty. You and I both know that these students, working 30 hours a week and more in unsteady jobs and raising families, have little hope of graduating. 

What’s my evidence for the outcome? I don’t know what you were doing last Monday.  I spent from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. setting up and volunteering at a food bank at Bunker Hill Community College, a place filled with these Pell Grant students.  Mr. President, these students have little to eat.  These students are on food stamps.  Our Massachusetts governor, who knows better, was on the campus for a MOOC press conference with Harvard and MIT on the day of our December food bank.  He wouldn’t visit the food bank.  You and I both know, Mr. President, that failing to look at hunger will not eliminate the hunger. 

Amid the Oscar din for "Lincoln," let’s admit that the 13th Amendment has failed.  I refer to the Constitutional prohibition of “involuntary servitude” and the legal provisions today that exempt student loans from bankruptcy laws. 

Preposterous?  Not at all in the 21st century.  Why is the wealthiest county on Earth allowing powerful corporations to scam teenagers and others who, remember, don’t have a college education yet, into such financial shackles? 

Let’s look at Section 1.  “Nether slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

You’re a lawyer, Mr. President. Declare the student-loan bankruptcy trap unconstitutional.  Of course informed citizens have a responsibility to repay loans.  The bankers who made these loans and the college CFOs who cashed the checks are the one to answer for these bad debts, not the entrapped students.  President Lincoln didn’t know if the Emancipation Proclamation would stick.  You may just win on this one. 

Are my arguments here preposterous? Outrageous? How I wish they were, Mr. President. How I wish they were. I think you realize, Mr. President, that things for millions in the U.S. today are this bad for millions. I’m a sometime teacher, sir, and one of the nation’s leading obscure columnists.  I can only proclaim, not issue proclamations. 

With words – abolition, emancipation, enslavement – I sometimes can make people stop and think.  That the 9.4 million students on Pell Grants, most of whom may have little to eat today, live in a building rather than a shanty in Nairobi’s Kibera makes no one a hero. 

Are my arguments preposterous? May I send you a copy of The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander?  We, the people, are failing on the 13th Amendment.  This book is about the massive prison population in the U.S.  That’s a group intertwined with poor college students at food banks.  As Alexander writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” 

Mr. President, the Department of Justice is considering how private colleges can meet together to discuss, without violating antitrust laws, what the colleges believe are constraints in awarding need-based aid.  Listen to Alexander: “What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it.”  Mr. President, would you wake up Attorney General Holder? 

“Need-based aid” is just the new Jim Crow language trick.  “Need-based aid” means giving money to blacks, other minorities, and the poor in general. Absence of financial aid is among the final barriers to college.  Have you seen The Central Park Five?  About the fate of the five young men falsely convicted of rape in New York?

I have an idea for you:  Lead the next March on Washington. Why can’t the President lead the march? Tactics so far have done little to move Congress. 

As you look down the Mall today toward the Lincoln Memorial, imagine crowds even bigger than at your first inauguration -- students in a march on Washington led by you.  Pick a day for the march when Congress is in session.  In your inspiring way, ask the students to turn around, toward the Capitol.  Ask them to march on Congress to demand that every student be entitled receive the same federal aid for college.  If the Pell Grant has to stay at $5,500, so be it.  No more federal subsidies via tax deductions for skyboxes, indoor golf nets or new buildings. (Click here for why.)

Have the marchers demand from Congress that federal law includes student loans in federal bankruptcy protection.  Add on that students on Pell Grants receive federal free and reduced lunch, too, for the duration of your second term?

Abolition.  Emancipation.  Mr. President, that’s the job of your second term.

Bio

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter: @WickSloane.

 

 

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