Massachusetts’ senior senator discusses why she’s taken on the issue of soaring student debt and unpacks her latest text, A Fighting Chance.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Tavis: The statistic is overwhelming: 38 million students are more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, 30 percent greater than the total credit card debt for the entire country, and those college loans have the highest rate of delinquency as well
Joining us now from Washington, Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose new tome, “A Fighting Chance,” on “The New York Times” best-seller list. She’s introduced a bill to ease the burden of those student loans. Senator Warren, always an honor to have you on this program.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Oh, always an honor to be here.
Tavis: I want to get to the student loan thing in just a second, but let me, if I can, ask a couple quick questions about the new text.
There’s some powerful, poignant stuff in here. I wonder if you might share with the audience the story of you watching your mother, like so many Americans, advancing in age, in her 50s at this point, putting on a dress to go look for work at Sears, as I recall, because things had gotten a little tight in your family. Tell me that story.
Warren: Well like a lot of families, we had our ups and downs, and when I was 12, my daddy was selling carpeting at this time, my three older brothers were all off in the military, and my mom was a stay at home mom.
Daddy had a bad heart attack and he was in the hospital for a long time and then at home for a long time without work, and the bills piled up. We lost the family station wagon, and we were right on the edge of about to lose our house.
That’s where I started the book, “A Fighting Chance.” I remember the day that I was up in my mother’s bedroom and she had pulled her best dress out of the closet.
She was 50 years old and was about to go look for work for the first time. She pulled that dress on, she struggled with that zipper, she put her high heels on and put on some lipstick, and I watched her when she walked to the Sears to get a minimum wage job to save our family.
This has always been the key for me about this story. My mother did what needed to be done, but it was also a time in America when a minimum wage job would keep a family of three afloat, and that’s what it did for our family.
It meant that we saved our home, we got things steadied out. My dad ended up as a maintenance man, my mom kept working at Sears, but our family survived. We survived because we were in an America that believed in how we build a middle class, how we strengthen a middle class, how we give all of our kids a fighting chance. So that’s where I start this book.
Tavis: Fast-forward a few years, as I intimated a moment ago, Senator Warren, and now student loan debt in this country exceeds credit card debt. As we move into this conversation –
Tavis: – let me start it this way. There are many, and survey after poll after study points this out, there are many who believe, with all due respect to your colleagues in the Senate, that they don’t have a clue how to fix this problem in part because so many of them don’t have the kind of back story that you have.
That is to say the Senate is full of millionaires many times over, and there are Americans who don’t believe that they understand or have at the epicenter of their duty and their call to understand what they’re struggling with to put their kids through college.
Can you assure the American public that the Senate understands this, that senators really get what it means to be in this kind of debt just to get an education?
Warren: Well I gotta say this, Tavis, we gotta get out there and fight to make sure that they do understand. So here’s the piece we’re working on right now. It’s just like you said, it’s the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.
Understand, this debt is exploding. In eight years, the amount of debt out there has gone up by 70 percent. More kids, more and more and more and more, are taking on more and more debt, and it’s starting to have an effect all the way through the economy.
These are kids who can’t move out of their parents’ homes, can’t buy houses, can’t buy cars, can’t save to build their own lives. So there’s a real question right now in front of the United States Senate.
We’re about to introduce a bill that says hey, look, we need to at least reduce the interest rate on these student loans. Homeowners have refinanced down to current low interest rates.
Small businesses have refinanced their loans. Heck, even municipalities and governments have refinanced their loans, but not our kids who’ve got student loans. Many of them are stuck out there at 7 percent, 8 percent, 9 percent, 10 percent and even higher.
So this bill says we’re going to reduce the interest rate on student loans for all of our young people who got out there, who did the right thing, who tried to get an education.
What we’re trying to do is give them a fair shot at building a life for themselves. We’ve got more than 30 sponsors, cosponsors right now in the United States Senate. This is our fight. We gotta get out there and fight for it.
We’ve got to fight for our kids; we’ve got to fight for their future. They just want a fair shot at building something, and this is their chance.
Tavis: I don’t know anyone, Republican or Democrat, who runs for a seat in the Senate that doesn’t tout what they want to do on education. It seems that everybody on either side of the aisle believes, at least they say, Senator Warren, that education is our passport to the future.
You’ve got to have an education if you want to make it in America. Who doesn’t believe that? Yet I’m trying to juxtapose those sentiments and those statements with what an uphill fight this has been to try to address this issue.
Tavis: I don’t get – I’m not naïve, but explain the disconnect.
Warren: So here’s the problem on this. Right now, those student loans are making huge profits for the federal government. I want to say that again: Huge profits, tens of billions of dollars in profits every year for the federal government.
That’s after you pay for the administrative costs and after you do the bad debt losses and after you do the cost of the funds. Students are now being charged enough to produce all of this extra money, and that extra money is being used to run the government.
So in order to reduce the interest rate in the student loans, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to find the money somewhere else. What we propose is that we stitch up some of the tax loopholes that are there that are only good for millionaires and billionaires.
The Buffett rule. You remember this, we talked about it a couple of years ago. So we’ve got a way to pay for it. We say stitch up those tax loopholes for billionaires and take every dollar and put it into paying down the interest rate on student loans. That’s our starting place.
Now the way I see this, that puts it right out there to say who does this government work for. Who does your senator work for? Does your senator say no, no, no, it’s more important to protect the tax loopholes for millionaires and billionaires so they’re going to vote no on this bill?
Or does your senator say it is more important that we make the investment in our young people, that we bring down the interest rates on student loans? This is a choice as a country.
We can invest in billionaires or we can invest in our students and give our students a fair shot at getting ahead. That’s the question in front of us. We’ve got to get people involved in this.
Tavis: But you know full well, you’re not new to Washington, you know full well that you’re going to be up against a huge and well-financed corporate lobby that’s going to push back on you trying to close those loopholes.
Increasingly, what concerns me about the debate in Washington is that any proposal that you put forth that gets cast as anti-corporate gets you then labeled anti-American. How do you fight that fight when that’s the kind of rhetoric you’re going to be up against?
Warren: So you’ve hit the nail exactly on the head. The problem we’ve got here in Washington is the lobbyists are there for the big corporations, the lobbyists are there for the billionaires to protect their tax loopholes.
They have tilted the playing field. In fact, I talk about this in my book, “A Fighting Chance,” how the playing field has been tilted. I give my own personal accounts of this, how I saw it, how I was in these fights.
They’ve got concentrated money on their side; they’ve got concentrated power on their side. All we have on our side are voices and our votes. We have to make them count. This is our fight.
We are going to make the decision about whether it’s a level playing field, or is this just a country that works for the millionaires and the billionaires? Me, I put my money on the people.
I think we can fight back, I think we will fight back. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s how we build a future for ourselves and our kids.
Tavis: Let me ask you a very practical question then about organizing and about mobilizing, since we’re on public television. So the bill gets introduced when, and once it’s introduced, what do the American people do? What are you asking us to do?
Warren: So the bill is going to be introduced this week, and it is on student loans. What I want is I want people to go online, and what we’ll try to do is we’ll give you the exact place that they need to go.
But it’s to go online, but you can google to find this out about student loans. Sign up on the petitions. We have to tell Washington that the American people are paying attention, that our young people are paying attention, that their parents are paying attention, that their grandparents are paying attention.
That this is an issue that matters to them, because when people sign those petitions, they may say those petitions, “Eh, who cares?” I’ll tell you who cares: The United States Senate cares. We want to get a million people to sign a petition that says we care more about investing in students than in billionaires.
We have to make our voices heard, and right now, online, doing it through our petitions is the very best way to do that. We have to be organized and we have to be loud.
Tavis: Let me close by circling back to your new book, “A Fighting Chance.” What do you hope the takeaway will be for readers who will get to know your story a little better when they read the text?
Warren: So thank you. The answer is the understand we once had an America that was trying to build a fighting chance not just for some of our kids but for all of our kids. We turned away from that in the 1980s.
We’ve gone to a world that’s all about I got mine, the rest of you are on your own. The rich say, “I’m pulling up the ladder.” It’s up to us to make our voices heard, to make our votes count, to say on our own behalf, and more importantly on behalf of our children and our grandchildren, we are going to rebuild an America that gives every kid a fighting chance.
Tavis: The book is called “A Fighting Chance,” and the author is Massachusetts Democrat, even though she’s only been there a few years now, the senior senator, in fact, from Massachusetts –
Warren: That’s right.
Tavis: – Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren, always a delight to have you on the program. Thanks for your work, and that’s for the conversation.
Warren: Thank you, always good to be here.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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