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More on Indentured Servitude
January 29, 2012 - 5:14pm

I had intended to write this week's post about Patrick Witt. However, as I was sitting in my office on Friday, trying, on a brief break, to reconcile the newspaper reports with the very different story in his press release, a supervisee arrived for her scheduled session, sat down and burst into tears. "I can't do this anymore," she said.

"Maria" is an extremely intelligent, competent and compassionate therapist who handles a number of high-risk adolescent cases. Many would find her job daunting, but Maria takes the challenges in stride. It was hard to imagine what could have put this gutsy woman over the edge.

She had just gotten off the phone with the NYPD. Earlier in the day, a police officer had issued her a summons for $100 for entering the subway without paying. Her MetroCard wasn't working, she needed to be somewhere, and she didn't have money for a new card. She saw an officer just inside the entrance, so she walked through the emergency door to ask him for help, and that was the response. She was told on the phone that the only way to fight the summons was to appear in court.

If she takes a day off from work to go to court, she will lose a day's pay. And she doesn't have $100 to pay the summons. She barely has enough to buy groceries.

How did someone with a doctoral degree and a job end up in this mess? She is not addicted to any substances, doesn't gamble, doesn't eat out often or buy expensive clothing, and doesn't have children. What she does have is massive student loan debt.

She didn't spend extravagantly on her undergraduate education. She attended a community college, then transferred to a four-year school, for which she took out her first student loans, since her parents were unable to help her. Then she was accepted into an Ivy League graduate school, and although tuition was backbreaking and financial aid was negligible, she calculated that the first rate education she would attain would pay off financially. So she took out more loans.

The payoff has yet to show itself. She graduated, took an entry-level job, and deferred repayment for as long as possible because she was spending her paychecks just to live. Eventually, though, she had to start paying. Her main lender, a private company, offers just two payment options: either pay only the interest for two years and then make the full payments, or make the full payments immediately. No negotiating, no middle ground.

Full payment on this loan is $1000/month. As a full- time, not-yet-licensed psychotherapist, Maria makes around $2000-$2500/month (her income fluctuates because she doesn't get paid if clients don't show up). Pay at our clinic is about par, perhaps even a bit generous, for unlicensed therapists—and licensure can be a complex and arduous process.

She pays $1530 in rent (not unusual in NYC). She owns her car, but pays $230/month in insurance--for the car; she can't afford health insurance for herself. Her boyfriend contributes what he can, but he works as a security guard and pays child support.  "We really want kids of our own," she told me, "but by the time I straighten out this mess, I may well be too old."

She has consulted lawyers about bankruptcy, but apparently, while you can default on car or house payments, loans for education—for, as she put it, the effort to better oneself and to give back to society—are not eradicable. She was advised to simply leave the country and cut off contact with everyone here, including her aging parents.

We went online to investigate whether she is eligible for food stamps, since currently her diet staple is ramen noodles, but her income is too high. We ended up making sick jokes about how she should go to court for the summons and insult the judge, ensuring a few months of "three hots and a cot"— because there really is no solution.

I asked her permission to blog about this, as a follow-up to Elizabeth's "indentured teens" post. She said, "Of course! Go ahead and give my name and identifying information if you want [of course I didn't do that]. People have to know about this.

"When I signed up, they had us do this lovely online tutorial that makes it all look doable. Nobody said, 'This is what your monthly payments will look like. This is what your life will be like.'"


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