Burn all student debt

Is it just me, or do too many Baby Boomers seem to find immense enjoyment in making bloodsport out of punching down on the millennial generation? Recently, one of our most televised and broadcasted political pundits, Mike Hosking—who also happens to be a walking stereotype of a self-entitled Boomer—had something inane to say to students who skip the country to avoid paying back their staggering student debts:

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You want to talk about “THEFT”?

Ok then, let’s talk about the intergenerational theft many of the Baby Boomer generation have committed against my generation. The Boomers, enjoyed free university education. Then, once a small handful of boomers, including PM John Key, were elected to power, they ripped the ladder up and forced the millennial generation to go into staggering amounts of student debt.

Increasingly, “higher education” is becoming more of a privilege of the super-rich than a human right for anyone else.  

You want students to stop skipping the country to avoid their staggering student loans? I can tell you as someone who has just turned 30, a loan feels more and more like a choke-chain around my neck, and the higher wages of lands like Australia and beyond seem increasingly enticing. Moving is entirely rational.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we need to raise wages generally, and make our minimum wage market-leading. It would mean we would not have to skip New Zealand to avoid paying back loans for degrees that are now almost worthless in a stagnant and flooded job market full of overqualified and desperate graduates.

I have to ring the IRD monthly and beg for a “compassionate” extension for my student loan repayments ‘cos I earn so little, and my pay-check is so inconsistent because for my whole working life I have been subject to casual contracts. These contracts afford me zero job security and no promise of exact hours each week.  I also have to contend with the embarrassment of going over my finances with some IRD call centre worker each time I call.

Bare in mind, I barely make over 18k a year. But if I don’t ring them up and “beg”, the IRD will take 20% of my pay-check because when I ‘skipped’ the country to Australia, in a bid to earn a better wage, I did not pay back my loan for a year. Why not? Because I was trying to pay back the overdraft I took out when I couldn’t make rent for a few months when I was a student. When you come from a working-class family of limited means you’re often forced to go into debt because your parents can’t bail you out when your landlord hikes up the rent or unexpected bills come through.   

Graduates who were unable to secure a decent job with a liveable pay-check, which is a mass majority of us, are fighting over crappy, low-paid jobs we do not even want; I have been stuck working minimum wage jobs in the service industry for ten years now. I hold two undergraduates and two post graduates, including a secondary teaching degree. Primary teachers are now leaving the Auckland area because they cannot afford the rising living costs. Not to mention ‘permanent’ contracts are being rolled back in teaching work, and instead, yearly ‘fixed’ contracts are offered, so now you only have a guarantee of work for one year. Teacher’s wages do not increase in line with the Consumer Price Index, so you can imagine how hard it is to attempt to live on poverty wages in the service industry while trying to pay back tens of thousands worth of debt accumulated at university.

When lived in Australia, I made more money as a bartender pouring pints and making cocktails, than I would have done as a first year teacher in, New Zealand. Just let that sink in for a moment.

We are trying to survive in a ruthless job market where workers rights have been rolled back and undermined by money-hungry employers who care only for profit and not their workers. Our ability to pay off our student loans is directly related to what wages are on offer – this should be obvious;  you’d think it would go without saying. Job creation has ground to a halt as such workers are being pitted against each other, serving only to push wages down even further.

As if that wasn’t enough, the National government has agreed to the TPPA, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will see the pitting of workers against each other  only get much, much more aggressive and humiliating. Famed linguist and author, Noam Chomsky, recently told HuffPost Live,

“[The TPP] is designed to carry forward the neoliberal project to maximize profit and domination and to set the working people in competition with one another, to lower wages and increase insecurity.”

In a flooded job market, as low-wage workers with loans to pay back, we become desperate and easily exploitable – more willing to accept fewer, or zero  benefits,  and grudgingly agree to sub-human wages. Why? Because we have no other option: there has been a massive rise in precarious work in Aotearoa. It’s a global trend, begun in the US and exported around the world that this precarious work develops where the use of zero hours and casual contracts becomes common. These types of contracts leave workers economically vulnerable because they guarantee no set hours of work. Holiday and sick pay is often denied to them.

And guess who is mostly being offered these types of contracts? New immigrants, people of colour, women and yes, YOUNG PEOPLE. There are very many of uswho are being collectively screwed.

When, so often, those who took on student debt are just struggling to stay above the poverty-line, how are we meant to pay back our student loans?

Last month I was at an Auckland University student rally against ongoing fee-rises that mostly result in women and Maori and Pacfika people being locked out of higher education. Politicians, academic staff and student representatives spoke. Marama Fox, co-leader of the Maori Party, urged students to take to the streets and fight for a better deal. I caught her at the end and asked, “What do you think it will take to incite the kind of political rage we need to stop rising fees?”

Marama responded: “You have to have champions. You have to have people that just go out and relentlessly gather others behind them. You need people who are religiously going ‘We are going to do it’ and plan an action, and then do it. You can never ever let this issue go off the agenda. You need champions.”

Despite being highly qualified workers, we find it easy to start to demand less. We speak out less. We keep quiet and shut up about workplace injustices like the fact that white women are paid 11.8% less than men, and women of colour even less. It has become crystal-clear to me that as a worker I am only worth the profit I can generate for my employer, reflected in the poor wages they pay me and the benefits they’ve routinely denied me. It doesn’t matter how hard I’ve grafted for an employer, or how ‘back-breaking time-flexible’ I have been, or how much I’ve smiled at rude and obnoxious customers, I have never, in ten years of working in the hospitality sector, received a pay-rise.

I can’t pay rent, let alone pay back my student loan.

Not once was I rewarded for my loyalty or commitment with a measly 50 cent pay-rise from my boss. The only pay rise I can rely on is the annual increase which this year was only 30 cents. Yeah, please tell me again how ‘hard work’ will one day pay-off? It doesn’t. Under neoliberalism and a broken economy which so many Boomers ripped holes in, to tell anyone ‘hard work’ pays off, is nothing more than pacifying lies.

Put Mike Hosking on minimum wage and subject him to a zero hour contract, then lump him with the dead weight of student debt in the tens of thousands with no real way of paying it back, and watch how quickly things begin to change.

All of this: low wages, a rise in precarious and often part-time work, coupled with student debt is compounded by brutal and ongoing welfare reforms and cuts to public spending, enacted first by Roger Douglas Minister of Finance for the Labour government in the late 1980s, have created the situation many of us are in today. In 1992, Ruth Richardson of the National government carried on Roger’s destructive work with what she called ‘The Mother of all Budgets’. Ruth, fondly nicknamed “Ruthinasia,” made significant cuts to welfare and also introduced student loans; prior to this university education had been free.

Predictably, she’d never had to pay back any student debt herself.

Fast forward to current day Aotearoa, and PM John Key’s National-led government has placed further sanctions on welfare, making it an unbearably humiliating process and almost impossible to access whether you need it because you are out of work, sick, disabled, or mentally unwell. It doesn’t matter. You will face impunity and callousness from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ).

John Key, like Ruth, also introduced cuts to higher education via his capping of the student allowance; unless you come from a wealthy background, going on to a masters or a PHD becomes increasingly difficult. Placing barriers on access to education is a violation of a human being’s basic right to an education, and this includes higher education. One of the best ways to pull yourself out of poverty and access upward mobility is through education that is free and accessible, regardless of where you perch on the ladder of societal privilege.

When countries have a strong welfare system and social support nets, people, be they young or old, are not routinely forced to take any menial, demeaning job. It means they have more time to look for work that better suits their skills and education, and not just take anything because they are hungry and have bills to pay.

Yet, Mike Hosking thinks he has the right to publicly criminalise students by labelling them “thieves”, when they skip the country to avoid paying back crippling amounts of student debt? Which, ultimately, criminalises those from lower economic communities and families, who went looking for a ‘better life’ overseas. Mike, in all his white male privilege and arrogance, is very publicly perpetuating the War on the Poor.  

It was Mike Hosking’s own generation which benefited so greatly from free university education, only to then turn around and rip it… no, steal it, away from not only my generation and Boomers and Gen Xers who decided to study later on in life, but the generation coming up after me. This generation has been labelled “Generation K,” after the character Katniss from dark dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games. Katniss, a young girl, is forced to battle other young people from the lower socio-economic, working class districts in an annual televised death match, until only one is left alive. No wonder these books sold 64 million copies worldwide, and the series has become what Laurie Penny recently called the “defining mythos for this generation”; our world today acutely reflects that elitist and poverty stricken world described by Suzanne Collins, the author.

Journalist Laurie Penny, writes,

“Most teenagers I know spend a frightening amount of time reading dystopian fiction, when they are not half killing themselves trying to get into universities that they know are no longer a guarantee of employment.

As Millennials I think we owe it to Generation K and the generations after them –  who will not only suffer the worst effects of neoliberalism but the devastating effects of climate change also – to stand up to people like Mike Hosking. I think we owe it to Generation K and ourselves to tell Mike Hosking and those who push the same harmful and hurtful rhetoric just how disgusting and psychopathic we think their positions on the poor and disenfranchised of this country really are.

I believe, with all my heart, we owe it to the coming generations to take to the streets collectively again, like students are right now in America, to demand and fight for national student debt forgiveness and free education. On November 12th this year, more than 120 campuses across the US joined the first ever National Student March.  Organizer Elan Axelbank told US Uncut,

“This has been building since the global recession in 2008. There are tens of millions of low-wage jobs, the cost of tuition is going up, and the amount of state aid has gone down. It’s almost impossible to pay off student debt today.”

We have a responsibility as millennials in Aotearoa, to move in solidarity with Generation K and ignite a National Student March of our own which is globally connected. We also need to strategically connect a National Student March movement with other workers such as our public healthcare workers who are enacting rolling strikes in Auckland, to protest cuts to public health, and university staff in places such as AUT who are ‘working to rule’, and walking off the job to demand fair pay and a better deal. I believe in workers solidarity generation to generation.  There is strength in numbers.

As the picket slogan goes: “Workers, united, will never be defeated.”

 

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I, and my mum,  who is a Union organiser at Middlemore hospital, Auckland, and a mental health worker, at the healthcare  rallies, to demand ‘quality care everyday’ and better work conditions.

 

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Heathcare workers taking to the picket lines, at Middlemore Hospital, Auckland

The time has passed for asking nicely for what we want. How much more economic deprivation will it take until, finally, there is a tipping-point for young people in this country, and we fiercely and relentlessly stand up and become “champions ” for other people trapped by mounting student debt and low-paid, repetitive, depressing work? As far as I am concerned, revolt is the only option left.

We need to show intergenerational solidarity; we need to fight, not just for our own right to debt-free education, but more importantly, for the coming generations to have what we never did: access to free higher education.

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Now we got bad blood: being poor in a rich world

I have this skill, so I am told, of really annoying or even enraging people who hold right-wing views, and in particular young Tories. I recently exercised this skill in my blogpost “In the playground of the rich, wealth flaunting is a sport.” I was told I was a “gutter journalist” by many upset readers and fans of the super affluent who flooded my Facebook to call me names and engage, often, in poverty shaming rhetoric.

All this, merely for daring to talk about “The Fulltimer Society,” a club started by some young men who sell an affluent party lifestyle during a time of great inequality in this country. I also upset and angered friends of Max Key for “checking his privilege” in my piece. Max Key is the son of our millionaire prime minister Mr. John Key.

Even political blogger Cathy “Chop Chop” Odgers (also known “Cactus Cate”) who was involved in smear campaigns against the Serious Freud office and was one of the stars of investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, stopped by my Facebook page to tell me what she thought of my piece:

cathy odgers

Cathy like so many others is woefully unaware of just how hard it is to “make it” as a writer or in any industry or creative endeavour which adds to and develops culture instead of obliterating it. Especially if like me, you write on or engage in issues around poverty, inequality, and speak about structural racism and sexism. Those topics are not easy sells to fat cat editors who might be able to pay you for your work; in America only 1% of all reporting is focused on poverty. Newsrooms and newspapers have been laying off reporters for a while now, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote for The Guardian:

Once-generous magazines shrank or slashed their freelance budgets; certainly there were no more free lunches.”

I guess, for a  corporate lawyer such as Cathy who specializes in trusts and tax who earns staggering amounts of money for all up working a job that is useless and serves to protect the wealthy, which is why her job is useless? The idea that accessing upward mobility or a better job is often pitted with structural hurdles, is a foreign concept to her? Cathy may as well have said: “poor people should just stop being poor”.

What I found most unsettling and even disturbing was not the name calling or even the threats of violence I received, but how so many young people clawed, like Cathy did, to protect power while at the same time ignoring how power structures serve to continue oppression and the disenfranchisement of people and entire communities.

Max Key stands to inherit millions of dollars as well as beach houses and holiday homes. He also benefits from the structural privilege accorded to his gender, class, and race. But apparently according to those messages he is the victim and I was the bully. I was told I “attacked him.” He is the one suffering “hardship” as I was informed by two of his friends and members of the “Fulltimer Society:”

max key is such a victim

max key is just a nice guy

Actually, it does matter that Max Key is so “under exposed” and utterly removed “from the grind that less fortunate children are exposed to.” It matters when anyone may be able to bring change to serious inequality, poverty, racism, or other such issues of structural social disadvantage but opts instead to ignore them.  

While tens of thousands of people of conscience marched on the 15th of this month all over Aotearoa to speak out against the TPPA–an alliance between corporate interests and governments which would erode our civil liberties and destroy our sovereignty as a country–in the USA a Black Lives Matter protest was happening on the streets of St. Louis. It is important to note there are generally a few BLM protests happening at any given time in America. I followed on the ground updates via Twitter: Linda Tirado, author and anti-poverty activist, Tweeted this image of a BLM protester chalking the following words on the pavement:

blm

When you stay silent on matters of racial injustice that include the targeted killing and what the journalist Kareem Abdul-Jabber calls the “assassination” of unarmed people of colour by police in America. Or the reality that Maori–our first nations people–represent 15% of the population but make up half of Aotearoa’s prison population, as Toby Manhire recently reported for The Guardian, you accept that situation and you consent to this structure. When you refuse to acknowledge there is a growing chasm between the super wealthy and people who are poor then you collude in the construction or the maintenance of that structure. And if the TPPA is passed this chasm will only get bigger.

By not actively speaking out or working against the TPPA, and against racial bias from the street to the legal system and elsewhere, and all such issues of structural inequality, you are saying: it doesn’t matter, and none of it matters. Or worse yet, you blame those who are facing structural equalities for their own circumstances – for example when you condemn and shame people living in poverty instead of the systems which create poverty, this only serves to excuse, reinforce and further entrench oppression and injustice.

Not everyone is a “victim” of the system, no matter what Max Key’s friends believe. Many people from privileged backgrounds benefit–without even thinking about it because they do not have to-–and become the wilful enforcers of systems of oppression.

Eric Garner was a black man who was murdered by police in America for selling untaxed cigarettes. Over and over again he repeated clearly: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” These were the last words he would ever speak as police officers held him down while another placed him in an illegal choke-hold, squeezing the breath and life from his body. “I can’t breathe” now rings out during Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings and has, at times, become a trending hashtag on Twitter, opening conversations around race and racism in the USA. The white police officer who put Eric in a chokehold served no time, a grand jury decided not to return an indictment.

However, Daniel Pantaleo who filmed the brutal killing was not so lucky; the police tried to put him behind bars and as Molly Crabapple wrote for Vice, “In December, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, but Orta, his supporters say, has been the target of a police campaign to destroy his life ever since.”  Those who expose injustice and cruelty will nearly always be punished for their bravery to serve as a warning to others.

This is business as usual in the USA. This, we are told, is just how the world works.

Max might be a “nice guy” as so many of his fans and BFFs told me while also indignantly exclaiming “You don’t even know him!” I may not know him personally but, what I do know is this: like so many who benefit from oppressive systems, Max says nothing about the hardships of others. Not a fucking whisper. The NZ Herald recently reported that over 300,000 kids are now living in relative poverty in this country; but sure, it is Max who is suffering the real “hardship” in all of this. Let’s talk about how hard done by he is, shall we, with his fancy swimming pool, beach houses, convertible cars, and blossoming model/DJ career.

So often journalists and those who messaged me and posted on my Facebook to let me know how “mean” I was and call me a bitch or whatever else they could come up with, in turn portray people who benefit the most from the misery and deprivation of others as the victims.

This is a key way in which the powerful maintain their dominance: they portray themselves or others with whom they identify as mere hapless victims who are unable to do anything about the gross inequality we are witnessing in this country and around the world.

What could they do instead? Share their ludicrous sums of money with communities that are in hardship and stop hoarding it. Perhaps they could even use their privileges to benefit others, rather than just themselves and a select few. This is just an idea, for any super rich-ass people who might be reading this. Perhaps they feel their hands are tied.  Anyway the reality is increasingly becoming clearer that you are either rich or you are poor. The myth or story we hear from above though continues to be that this stark economic and social binary is a result of the individual choices we make in our lives. “You get what you work for,” right?

This is just business as usual.  This, we are told, is just how the world works.

Between the petty names and the hypersexualised messages sent to my inbox, it became incredibly clear that many believe rich kids such as Max Key-–who is cultivating a celebrity presence via social media-–and young people who start societies such as “The Fulltimer Society,” are completely off limits. They have special exemption from critique or criticism. I even had one white dude message me in response to what I wrote to let me know he would like to “shove a fucking cactus down my throat,” rounding off by calling me a “cunt,” and in another post called me a “niggah.” My friend who is a writer living in America suggested that it was likely this guy used that word against me because to him black people are the lowest of the low. So, it was a big insult.

All of these reactions made it clear that many people believe the lives of the rich and affluent are “off limits.” Perhaps this even extends to those who worship wealth and play the dandy like some kind of Nick Carraway character from The Great Gatsby; after all, some of the guys who started the “Fulltimer Society” don’t necessarily come from wealthy backgrounds.

However, the lives of the working class and those who are poor are never “off limits.” We don’t get special exemption from name calling and shaming in relation to our “life-styles.” I come from the working class and I am routinely told that I am lazy, no matter how many minimum wage jobs I am working at any given time. If I am fired, for whatever insufficient reasons and from whatever precarious job I am working, and if I need welfare between jobs, I get called a “benefit scrounger” and I am made to feel worthless. Cathy Odgers pointed out that with my “literary talent” I should have managed to land a better job in a higher pay bracket. As if it is that easy!

If you are born into wealth you are likely to get the contacts and thus the networks which come with it regardless of how talented you are. I don’t have that benefit, and most millennials growing up today don’t. Instead of contacts and networking opportunities we are handed austerity and pushed into situations where we are competing with each other for low-paid precarious jobs in a flooded and cut-throat job market: jobs we often do not even want but have to work in order to survive.

There is a reason why The Hunger Games series resonates with so many people. It portrays a futuristic dystopia where young people from the lower classes are selected to battle each other to the death in an annual ritual death match. These “games” are enforced by a heartless totalitarian leader: President Snow who lives in the affluent capital, disconnected from the day-to-day hardships and deprivation his people are forced to endure. The books and movies resonate with so many because young people who come from the real political underclasses often feel they are living in a dystopia ruled by heartless leaders; we live in a structure which is a parallel reality, where we have to battle each other for shit jobs, just to survive. The odds are never in our favour.

happy hunfer games

In Aotearoa we have one Mike Hosking, our most prominent media mongrel and our very own equivalent of Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Both are committed to protecting the super wealthy, especially those such as our millionaire PM John Key, or Donald Trump as if either actually needs defending. Both media mongrels say the most offensive shit about people who are poor, and both have prime time “current affairs” shows. The lives of the poor are rarely off limits, if ever. Mike recently weighed in on changes to child support, asking:

“The cost of a child is the cost of a child. If you can’t afford one, why did you have one? And if you did have one and can’t afford it why are you expecting the rest of us to pay the bill?”

I wonder how many tax deductible business lunches Mike has, had? I guess it is okay if we, as taxpayers foot the bill to subsidise some of his food bill? But parents living in poverty gostruggling to feed their kids well, they shouldn’t have had kids in the first place? Where is the moral distinction between Mike, getting a tax deductible business lunch and a person who is struggling to survive getting a WINZ food grant in New Zealand or food stamps in places like America? Can someone please, tell me?

Should we just give the super affluent a “get out of jail free card”? Must we just allow power to go unchecked and unfettered? After all, this is exactly what some of our most prevalent political pundits do, including Mike Hosking, who himself is a millionaire – he protects his own. He acts as a mere messenger for the right-wing and endlessly defends John Key’s behaviour even when it is outright fucking creepy.

For just one famous example, when Key was found out to have yanked on a waitress’s ponytail repeatedly over several months, even after she had expressed over and over again it was completely unwelcome and was causing her distress, Mike ran to his defence like he always does:

Let’s just face it: We can tell it was sexual harassment in the workplace because if it was a dude with a ponytail John would not have yanked on it. Similarly, from this singular incident we can tell Mike Hoskings serves the powerful and not the disempowered. He is committed to obscuring power, not exposing it. As veteran journalist, John Pilger has stressed for most of his career:

“The media is the invisible government.”

From his endlessly repeated rhetoric we see that Hosking believes power and the elite few who hold it must be vigorously protected at all costs, even if it is at the cost of the vast majority of people living in Aotearoa.

Already we are seeing the rise of third world diseases in this country, attributed to the growing rates of heart-numbing poverty in low socioeconomic communities. More often than not the vulnerable and downtrodden are not protected by our governments, neither those from the right, nor the relatively nominally left of the Labour party. (Seriously, does anyone even know what Labour stands for in this country anymore, other than pandering to the centre-right?) New Zealand gangs are doing more to feed kids in poverty than the National government, who actually voted against the recent “Feed the Kids” bill.

Just typing those words is heart-wrenching and jarring. Our most vulnerable people are not being protected by their own government, nor even having their voices elevated by the vast majority of media tycoons such as Mike or journalists, who are meant to be truth speakers in times of universal deceit.

This then, is business as usual. This, we are told, is just how the world works.

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