Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Chuck Schumer have spent months asking President Biden to use his authority to eliminate or reduce crushing student debt. Biden promised to do so, and all he has to do is sign this piece of paper. But he has refused, despite new Roosevelt Institute research showing that educational debt relief “would provide more benefits to those with fewer economic resources and could play a critical role in addressing the racial wealth gap and building the Black middle class.”
As student debt crushes the elderly and people of color, into this vacuum comes a rescue… for a lucky few. Public officials have taken the idea of affordable college from something the world’s wealthiest nation should be able to provide to everyone, and converted it into an expensive luxury item only for the superrich, those unfortunate enough to be the victim of a terrorist attack, or those lucky enough to win the lottery.
State officials in Colorado, New York, and Ohio are holding out the grand prize of affordable public education to a handful of lucky kids who are entered into a lottery when they get their COVID-19 vaccine. New York is giving out fifty full, free-ride scholarships; Ohio is offering five full-ride scholarships; and Colorado will give out twenty-five scholarships each worth $50,000. The New York and Ohio tickets would help people go to public colleges and universities, which are supposed to be affordable but aren’t.
At first glance, the state initiatives could seem like pragmatism. With the federal government gridlocked and states unwilling to raise revenues to adequately fund universal access to affordable higher education, at least we can offer postsecondary education to a handful of the non-rich. And hey, if it entices more people to get vaccinated, that’s an added bonus.
But on another level, this feels like something out of a dystopian sci-fi satire.
As other countries suffer mass casualties because vaccines are simply not available or affordable, America apparently has the opposite problem: We’re swimming in the much-coveted medical prophylactic against COVID, and yet we apparently must gamify the vaccine process in order to persuade our people to get free shots to protect themselves from the deadly virus.
Even worse, the big shiny enticing prize young people can win is not some sports car, speedboat, or even a visit to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It is more affordable college — as if access to an education should not be considered a basic right, but instead must be considered some overpriced, totally-out-of-reach, only-for-the-elite indulgence like a leather couch, a Caribbean vacation, or some other gaudy item on The Price Is Right’s Showcase Showdown.
It doesn’t have to be this way. America can easily afford to cancel student debt for everyone, and that would likely provide a huge boost to the economy.
But we’ve chosen not to do that. As our leaders constantly tell us that education is of vital importance in a competitive global economy, they have also created this Black Mirror episode we’re all living through.
Biden spent forty years helping his debt-industry benefactors make it nearly impossible for Americans to reduce their student debt. When the political winds shifted against austerity, he explicitly promised that he would support “immediate $10,000 forgiveness of student loans” — a number that was never nearly enough. But it’s now nearly five months into his presidency and he hasn’t lifted a finger to use his executive authority to do it.
Similarly, two governors touting the new affordable-college-for-vaccine sweepstakes — Ohio’s Mike DeWine (R) and New York’s Andrew Cuomo (D) — have spent years defending the wealthy from tax cuts while they’ve pushed to slash higher education funding. And the other governor, Colorado’s Jared Polis (D), runs a state whose constitution was rigged by Republicans to make it almost impossible to raise revenues.
Electing and reelecting the people who created these problems got us to a moment where something like access to affordable college is no longer perceived as something to be guaranteed for all. It is instead seen as a special gift — a coveted door prize in a real-life game show that’s something of a cross between Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and The Running Man.
Of course, the justification for the vaccine sweepstakes goes something like this: Sure, it might be sad that somehow Americans need enticement to get the free, life-saving vaccine being denied to poor people across the globe, but at least more people are getting vaccinated!
That’s true — but what about the long-term cost of depicting access to affordable education as a special jackpot rather than an entitlement?
In doing so, political leaders are normalizing a dystopian worldview that deliberately portrays priorities like education as extravagances only winnable in a game. It is part of a larger trend, in which economic survival — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — is increasingly seen as a special trophy for a fortunate few.
In New York, home of Wall Street billionaires and crushing poverty, there’s a separate enticement offering lottery tickets to adults who get the vaccine, with one $5 million grand prize. Ohio is offering five $1 million lottery tickets.
Such gimmicks are dispiriting, to say the least. Imagine The Price Is Right announcer beholding a hellscape of pandemic death and economic despair, and then bellowing “come on down!” for the slimmest chance to not be poor. California governor Gavin Newsom (D), for his part, appeared to be channeling Bob Barker when he handed out jumbo checks to his state’s vaccine prize winners.
Meanwhile in Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has offered an even darker vision of this paradigm. Last week, he reintroduced the Terrorism Survivors Student Loan Deferment Act, which would allow victims to temporarily put off (but not cancel) student debt payments. The Florida senator doesn’t want to make college universally accessible — he wants to make a college layaway payment plan a special benefit only for those unfortunate enough to be grievously harmed in a violent attack.
Rubio’s plan follows his previous proposal on paid parental leave, which would avoid requiring employers to provide such benefits, and instead encourage Americans to raid their future Social Security to pay for it.
This is all part of a radical ideology that reimagines basic benefits as privileges that should be based on the luck of the draw. It is a doubling down on the randomness of human existence that is already inherently arbitrary. In the game of life, your lottery ticket is a mix of the genetic health, economic status, and geopolitical situation you are born into through no merit of your own, and your luck can ebb and flow through happy coincidences and unexpected tragedies.
A humane civilization puts in place policies to at least provide the basic necessities of modern life, and slightly reduce the randomness of it all. Offering a free vaccine is an example of that — it provides universal access to a reduced chance of getting sick and dying. (Although for some reason, in this country we still have to beg people to utilize the opportunity.)
But that’s the exception, not the rule in America. For the most part, we seem intent on embracing rather than mitigating life’s randomness, and we’re okay with creating a Lottery Society where access to necessities are based purely on happenstance.
We seem determined to convert economic survival into a luxury prize, rather than what it should be: a fundamental right.