In his reckless essay, Siegel had advised student-loan borrowers to do three things before defaulting on their student loans: 1) Take out a lot of credit cards to establish good credit before your credit is damaged by a student-loan default; 2) Establish a good history of paying rent to increase your chances that landlords will rent to you in spite of your default; and 3) marry or live with someone who has a good credit rating.
Lieber poked holes in all that advice, so anyone who reads Siegel's article and is tempted to default on student loans should read Lieber's article too.
Lieber wrote a good rebuttal to Siegel's essay, but he failed to convey some other important information. First, there is no statute of limitations on student-loan debt. A student-loan borrower may suffer no consequences of default for a quarter century or more. But the government and its debt collectors can go after a defaulter right up to the moment of death. And that includes you, Mr. Siegel.
Second, defaulters face liability for more than just the amount of money they borrowed. They also face liability for accrued interest, fees, and penalties, which can total 25 percent of the amount borrowed plus accumulated interest. It is not uncommon for student-loan borrowers to stumble into bankruptcy court owing double, or even, triple the amount of money they borrowed. By that time, of course, they are in a world of hurt.
Also, Lieber understated the number of elderly people who have seen their Social Security checks garnished by the federal government for nonpayment of student loans. Lieber's article incorrectly stated that the number of people whose Social Security checks were garnished in 2013 was 33,000, but that is the approximate number of people whose Social Security checks were garnished in 2002. By 2013, the number of people whose Social Security checks were garnished for nonpayment on student loans was 155,000, as reported by the General Accounting Office. Between 2002 and 2013, the number of elderly people who were having their Social Security checks garnished grew by more than four fold!
Millions of people have defaulted on their student loans, at least 7 million, according to a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But most did not default in order to live more fulfilling lives, which was Siegel's reason for defaulting. Most defaulted because they simply could not make their student-loan payments and still have enough left over from their paychecks to eat and pay rent. And many have seen their loan balances balloon due to additional interest that accumulated during periods when they couldn't make their loan payments.
In short, most student-loan defaulters quit making loan payments out of a sense of hopelessness and despair, not to lead more creative lives. All these people deserve relief from their oppressive student-loan debt. Unfortunately, Siegel may have given Americans the erroneous impression that most student-loan defaulters are feckless deadbeats, when in fact most are honest individuals who wound up in default due to a variety of tragic life circumstances--job loss or failure to find a good job, divorce, or health issues.
General Accounting Office. Older Americans: Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Borrowers. GAO-14-866T. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-866T
Lieber, Ron. The Downside of Defaulting on Student Loans. New York Times, June 13, 2015, p. B1.
Siegel, Lee. Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans. New York Times, June 7, 2015, Sunday ReviewSection, p. 4.