Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Opioid Epidemic and The Student Loan Crisis: Is there a link?

James Howard Kunstler wrote one of his best essays recently about America's opioid epidemic, and he began with this observation:
 While the news waves groan with stories about "America's Opioid Epidemic," you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what's behind it, namely the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens.
Kunstler went on to describe life in small towns and rural America: the empty store fronts, abandoned houses, neglected fields, and "the parasitical national chain stores like tumors at the edge of every town."

Kunstler also commented on people's physical appearance in backwater America: "prematurely old, fattened and sickened by bad food made to look and taste irresistible to con those sick in despair." And he described how many people living in the forgotten America spend their time: "trash television, addictive computer games, and their own family melodramas concocted to give some narrative meaning to lives otherwise bereft of event or effort."

There are no jobs in flyover America. No wonder opioid addiction has become epidemic in the old American heartland. No wonder death rates are going up for working-class white Americans--spiked by suicide, alcohol and drug addiction.

I myself come from the desperate heartland Kunstler described. Anadarko, Oklahoma, county seat of Caddo County, made the news awhile back due to four youth suicides in quick succession--all accomplished with guns. Caddo County, shaped liked the state of Utah, can easily be spotted on the New York Times map showing where drug deaths are highest in the United States. Appalachia, eastern Oklahoma, the upper Rio Grande Valley, and yes--Caddo County have the nation's highest death rates caused by drugs.

Why? Kunstler puts his finger on it: "These are the people who have suffered their economic and social roles in life to be stolen from them. They do not work at things that matter.They have no prospect for a better life . . . ."

Now here is the point I wish to make. These Americans, who now live in despair, once hoped for a better life. There was a spark of buoyancy and optimism in these people when they were young. They believed then--and were incessantly encouraged to believe--that education would improve their economic situation. If they just obtained a degree from an overpriced, dodgy for-profit college or a technical certificate from a mediocre trade school, or maybe a bachelor's degree from the obscure liberal arts college down the road--they would spring into the middle class.

Postsecondary education, these pathetic fools believed, would deliver them into ranch-style homes, perhaps with a swimming pool in the backyard; into better automobiles, into intact and healthy families that would put their children into good schools.

And so these suckers took out student loans to pay for bogus educational experiences, often not knowing the interest rate on the money they borrowed or the payment terms. Without realizing it, they signed covenants not to sue--covenants written in type so small and expressed in language so obscure they did not realize they were signing away their right to sue for fraud even as they were being defrauded.

And a great many people who embarked on these quixotic educational adventures did not finish the educational programs they started, or they finished them and found the degrees or certificates they acquired did not lead to good jobs. So they stopped paying on their loans and were put into default.

And then the loan collectors arrived--reptilian agencies like Educational Credit Management Corporation or Navient Solutions.  The debt collectors add interest and penalties to the amount the poor saps borrowed, and all of a sudden, they owe twice what they borrowed, or maybe three times what they borrowed. Or maybe even four times what they borrowed.

Does this scenario--repeated millions of time across America over the last 25 years--drive people to despair? Does it drive them to drug addiction, to alcoholism, to suicide?

Of course not.

And even if it does, who the hell cares?


Drug Deaths in 2014


References


James Howard Kunstler. The National Blues. Clusterfuck Nation, April 28, 2017.

Sarah Kaplan.'It has brought us to our knees': Small Okla. town reeling from suicide epidemicWashington Post, January 25, 2016.

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt. New York Times, January 1, 2014

Gina Kolata and Sarah Cohen. Drug Overdoses Propel Rise in Mortality Rates of Young Whites. New York Times, January 16, 2016.

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. 

Haeyoun Park and Matthew Bloch. How the Epidemic of Drug Overdose Deaths Ripples Across AmericaNew York Times, January 19, 2017.






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