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"I Cannot Eat Your Prayers": How Student Debt Changed One Woman's Mind on "Christian Charity"

From an evangelical home to over $100,000 in student loans and healthcare debt, one writer faces the ways in which even progressive Christianity comes up short.
 
 
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 I’m going to tell you a story. It’s the story of a good girl from a quiet town who prayed, studied hard, said no to drugs, and otherwise did everything she was told—and then went on to become Sallie Mae’s bitch and lost just about everything. This story is mine.

I grew up in an evangelical home, and was an earnest “liberal-evangelical” into my early twenties. Now I think that my former religious faith—not unlike my faith in the U.S. higher education system—gave me a warped sense of optimism about the way the world works. I believed in faith-based platitudes, plus a few secular ones. Examples:

  1. God has a plan for my life.
  2. My whole future is ahead of me.

Until a few days ago, I was too ashamed to talk publicly about what happened to me. That’s when I saw  Natalia Antonova’s incredibly brave piece at Alternetdetailing her pending student loan default. This issue is so cloaked in shame and humiliation that many of us stay silent. Check out Natalia’s post-article blog post if you don’t think stigma and shame are deeply intertwined with defaulting on debt out of necessity: she has been contacted by people who say they hope her lenders drive her to suicide.

This attitude is deeply engrained in many of us. Financial struggle is associated with sloth in this country. (Thank you, Newt Gingrich, for reminding me of that  so frequently these days.) I have a very low credit score, and this means I have had trouble finding stable employment. So I go from temporary job to temporary job and write as many freelance articles as I can convince anyone to pay me for.

My daily schedule right now is as follows:

  • Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.: Edit scientific research for consulting gig.
  • Monday through Friday, 2:30 to 3 p.m.: Eat lunch while driving home.
  • 3 p.m. to midnight: Write freelance articles.
  • Saturday and Sunday: Churn out articles. No breaks. No friends, from the time I wake up until the time I fall asleep.

Tell me again how lazy I am. I never stop working, and I will not clear $20,000 of income this year. My relationships with friends and family have deteriorated because I cannot afford to take an hour or two off on weekends to hang out. The only friends I speak to nowadays are journalists who are professional contacts.

My name is Kristin Rawls. I am thirty-one years old. I am not a drug user. I am not an alcoholic. My crime is that I went to school, and then I got sick. Today, I cannot even rent an apartment on my own without a co-signer. And the way things are going—the more things are deregulated—I’m not optimistic that that will always be enough.

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I’m among America’s brightest and best educated. If you came across me in a social setting, you might mistake me for a middle- or upper-middle-class person. This is because I “pass” pretty well. However, I am not able to get jobs that match my skills, because employers assume based on my credit score that I’m lazy and incompetent. I have never done anything irresponsible except having gone to school. I am the new face of financial ruin in this country.

It’s not that my education hasn’t given me anything. It trained me to think critically. It gave me the confidence to articulate the problems I see and make effective arguments. Because I “pass,” it may be easier for me to secure an advocate (e.g., a lawyer) even though I have nothing to pay. I also have access to publications like this one.