American dystopia more reality than fiction
The Return of Debt Peonage
In "The Hunger Games," kids in poor families take out extra chances in their District lottery -- that is, extra chances to die -- in return for extra food rations; in ours, poor kids enlist in the military to feed their families and maybe escape economic doom. Many are seduced by military recruiters who stalk them in high school with promises as slippery as those the slave trade uses to recruit poor young women for sex work abroad.
And then there's another form of debt peonage that is far more widespread in our strange and ever-changing land: student loans. The young are constantly told that only a college education can give them a decent future. Then they're told that, to pay for it, they need to go into debt -- usually into five figures, sometimes well into six. And these debts are, in turn, governed by special laws that don't allow you to declare bankruptcy -- no matter what. In other words, they are guaranteed to follow you all your life.
One of my close friends wept when her husband began to earn enough money to pay off her $45,000 loan, structured so that it looked like she would continue to pay interest on it for the rest of her life; not so dissimilar, that is, from the debts sharecroppers and workers in company towns used to incur.
In other words, we're creating a new generation of debt peonage. And she's not the worst case by far. Early in the Occupy Wall Street moment, she told me, someone arrived at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan with markers and cardboard on which participants were to write their debt. What shocked her was how many of the occupiers in their early twenties were already carrying huge debt burdens.
According to the website for Occupy Student Debt, 36,000,000 Americans have student debts. These have increased more than fivefold since 1999, creating a debt load that's approaching a trillion dollars, with students borrowing $96 billion more every year to pay for their educations. Two-thirds of college students find themselves in this trap nowadays. As commentator Malcolm Harris put it in N + 1 magazine:
"Since 1978, the price of tuition at U.S. colleges has increased over 900%, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the U.S. economy, then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But... wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt."
About a third are already in default. You can only hope that this bubble will burst in a wildcat strike against student debt, and if we're lucky, a move to force tuition lower and have a debt jubilee.
The rest of us, the 99 percent, need to remember that, when it comes to public education, the crisis has everything to do with slashed tax rates -- to the wealthy and corporations in particular -- over the last 30 years. We went into bondage so that they might be free. Getting an education to make your way out of poverty and maybe expand your mind is becoming another way of being trapped forever in poverty. For too many, there's no way out of the hunger labyrinth.
The Labyrinths of Poverty
Which brings us to the hungriest in our 2012 real-life version of the Hunger Games: the poor. The wealthiest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen is full of hungry people. You know it, and you know why. In this vast, bountiful, food-producing, food-wasting nation, it's a crisis of distribution, also known as economic inequality, described at last with clarity and force by the Occupy movement.
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Rebecca Solnit grew up in California public libraries and is thrilled to be revisiting them all over the state as part of the Cal Humanities California Reads project, which is now featuring five books, including her "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster." Ursula K. LeGuin's "Earthsea" books remain her favorite young-adult fantasy series, even though she found "The Hunger Games" trilogy irresistible. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.