BY AVA BLUM-CARR ’21
This past Sunday, Senator Elizabeth Warren held a town hall event in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where citizens were encouraged to pose questions and voice concerns. A range of topics were addressed, but the issues of student debt and income inequality were at the forefront of the discussion.
Senator Warren was asked if the Democrats had a message that would inspire working-class and middle-class voters. In response, she launched into an explanation of income stratification in the United States which set the tone for the rest of the conversation.
“There was a time when the whole point of government was to measure everything through the lens of creating more opportunity,” said Warren, referencing the time period following the Great Depression up until roughly 1980.
Warren said that as the country’s GDP steadily grew, the bottom 90 percent of Americans received 70 percent of the new income growth being generated. The election of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent embrace of trickle-down economic theory represented a paradigm shift, according to Warren.
Even as GDP continued to increase, “from 1980 to 2016, the 90 percent of America, everyone not in the top 10 got none of the new income growth. Zero,” said Warren.
This issue goes hand in hand with the accessibility of higher education and the current prevalence of enormous student debt in America.
“I grew up in a paycheck-to-paycheck family. By the time I graduated from high school, we didn’t have the money to pay for college,” said Warren. Through scholarships and access to public universities, Warren eventually graduated law school, but many young people do not receive these opportunities.
Warren acknowledged the fundamental contradiction of a society that puts great emphasis on the importance of higher education while simultaneously failing to make that education universally accessible.
“If you come from a family that’s wealthy, you’ll do fine, but if you’re not, you’re going to have to scramble and borrow money,” said Warren. The result is over a trillion dollars of student loan debt in the country today.
“Right now [student debt] is going up at a rate of a hundred billion dollars a year. We are literally crushing young people in America, and that is morally wrong. It is despicable,” said Warren.
This is an issue that affects many students nationwide, including at Mount Holyoke. Savita Diggs ’21 expressed frustration with the process of finding sufficient work as a student in an effort to mitigate future debt. “I think that if you get past a certain point [in debt], your education isn’t worth it anymore, because you won’t be able to support yourself,” said Diggs.
“I think that there are some good programs for forgiving loans, but they’re usually very specific, like the army,” Diggs said. “It’s not fair for people to not have opportunities because of student debt.”
As a solution, Elizabeth Warren suggested stronger support for public universities and community colleges, as well as a re-evaluation of the student debt issue. “I grew up in an America that invested in kids like me,” said Warren. “I believe we have to forgive some of this debt to get ourselves on a better path.”
Senator Warren received loud applause from the audience on all of these points, but other key issues like defense spending were not discussed.
Warren brought up the military in her opening remarks about Veteran’s Day, citing what she referred to as the “solemn obligation” held by senators and representatives to send American troops into harm’s way only when absolutely necessary. However, the $700 billion defense policy bill that Warren voted yes on in September was not addressed at the event. According to CNN, the new defense budget exceeds the Trump administration’s original request by $37 billion.
While this is hardly the staunch opposition to Donald Trump and his party that Warren claims, she centered her concluding comments around this principle all the same.
One audience member questioned Warren about concrete solutions to the array of problems that were brought up at the event. “Whether it’s about student debt or the ninety percent who are being left behind, what can be done in this current administration?” she asked.
In response, Warren cited the GOP’s thwarted efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act as an example of a political win achieved despite the Democrats’ house and senate minority. According to Warren, grassroots organizing and engagement by citizens drove this victory.
“I’ll tell you this,” said Warren. “Getting into these fights is not like draining a battery. It’s like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.”