The Obama administration is changing some rules about how people can repay their student loans based on their income, to make that debt repayment somewhat less onerous for people whose incomes are low. Which is good. But not as good as it could be. As in many operations of our society, the lower class is helped less than the middle and upper classes. This happens often in the system of government we have designed. It is not a good system.
"The Middle Class," which is dying, is still a sacred totem in America. It is a symbol, a sacred idea tied to our conception of the American Dream. It is what everyone is supposed to be able to achieve here. What exactly that constitutes varies based on personal imagination, which is why most Americans tend to identify themselves as middle class (except during recession-wracked moments like the present).
Have you noticed how much political rhetoric focuses on who will "help the middle class?" The presidential debates are essentially arguments between two millionaires over who cares more for The Middle Class. Caring for the middle class is good. But there is something that is more important: caring for the lower class. If that point seems simple, it is. Children can understand it. By the time we reach voting age, though, most of us have managed to forget it.
The middle class is the majority, and the middle class votes, and there is money to be raised from the middle class. The lower class is the minority (though a sizable one), and votes less frequently, and does not, by definition, have piles of money to spend to influence politicians through donations and lobbying. Therefore the lower class is ignored—even though their problems are, by definition, the most dire. This is the natural outcome of our capitalist-intensive form of plutocracy/ democracy, and it is a flaw in the system. Our system of politics and government is flawed, and the weakest members of our society pay the price.
Democracy, per se, has nothing to do with wealth. Democracy—the kind of democracy to which we pay lip service, at least—is based on a certain ideal of civic equality. In America, though, we have constructed a system in which political power can more or less be directly purchased by wealthy interests, so the government quite naturally responds to the needs of the wealthy first, rather than last. The money that enables politicians to get elected comes from the wealthy, and the votes come from the middle class, and very little that helps politicians comes from the lower class, and, when politicians are elected, they dispense benefits back in the order in which they were received. The fact that politicians are supposed to serve the needs of the people in a fair way, rather than to repay campaign favors, is just a sweet kindergarten fiction.
If you believe in human equality, then you must acknowledge that those humans with the most dire needs deserve the most help. The lower class has the greatest needs. Its needs should be served first. Then the middle class, and then, last of all, the upper class, which is most able to take care of itself. In a rational world, the presidential debates would be dominated by talk of helping the lower class. In the real world, such talk was all but absent. To ignore the lower class in order to focus resources on helping the middle class is as nonsensical as ignoring a gunshot wound in order to treat a split lip. It is as nonsensical as basing one's vote upon the criteria of which candidate will lower our personal tax rate the most, rather than upon the criteria of which candidate will most successfully mitigate the suffering of the millions of poverty-stricken, jobless Americans in crime-ridden neighborhoods with poor schools. But that is the situation we are in, because that is the system of incentives for our elected leaders which we have all collectively agreed upon, by standing by and allowing our democracy to be seamlessly merged into capitalism until getting politicians elected is merely a business expense. The upper class must be served for its money, and the middle class will be served for the sheer scope of its voting power, and the lower class will wait around to collect any scraps that may trickle down when the government has handled the rest of its business.
So law school graduates may be able to write off $100,000 in debt, but community college students, who are spending hours on the bus commuting thanks to budget cuts, may write off a mere fraction of that, and the wealthy reap hundreds of thousands of dollars from the same tax cuts that reap perhaps a nickel for the poor, because, as we know, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
Americans are perfectly capable of lining up in an orderly fashion to buy iPhones. We should be able to line up in a rational fashion for government benefits, as well.
[Photo: Ed Yourdon/ Flickr]