Why Should We Pity These People?

A couple of weeks ago, I ripped apart a factually anemic but all-too-typical USA Today article decrying the plight of student debtors. Today, the grand journalistic tradition of anecdote-and-pity laden reporting on student debt continues with offerings from Business Week and The New York Times.

In an article about tight times for student loan forgiveness programs, The Old Gray Lady sticks with the journalistic tried-and-true by leading with an extreme anecdote that readers, presumably, are supposed to see as illustrating typical suffering:

When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both special-education teachers — were in trouble.

“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that they expected the program to help them repay over five years.

Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this year was next to nothing.”

Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg, Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just eat.”

Please, Mr. Gay (and Mr. Glater, the author of this heart-string puller)! You, and presumably your wife, are only in your mid-twenties, have what appears to be a very nice home according to the picture accompanying the article, and yet have the nerve to assert that taxpayers should eat your student loans lest you not eat at all!

Excuse me if I don’t start singing “We Are the World.”

This is simple greed – you know, the stuff for which the media regularly excoriates “big business” – but readers are expected to see it as suffering because it involves recent college grads. Oh, and grads who have gone into teaching, according to Glater “a high-value but often low-paying” field. That the Gays have felt wealthy enough to buy a house despite holding much greater than normal student debt – and the fact that on an hourly basis teachers get paid on par with comparable professionals – doesn’t present any impediment to the reporter repeating the baseless underpaid teacher myth. It’s all just part of the standard narratives.

Business Week’s piece isn’t much better than the Times’, though at least reporter John Tozzi had the decency not to start off with an emotionally manipulative anecdote of supposed human suffering. His third paragraph, however, centers around “analysis” from the student-centric Project on Student Debt, and he rolls out the ol’ Tale of Woe right after:

“It’s just so frustrating,” says Susan D. Strayer, director of talent acquisition for Ritz-Carlton in Washington. “They tell you to be self-made. They tell you get yourself a good education and you can get yourself into a pretty big hole.” Strayer, 33, has $90,000 in student loan debt from her bachelor’s at Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Washington University. She also has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which she earned on a full scholarship—but skipped two years of earnings to acquire. Strayer says her monthly loan payments of $600 barely budge the principal on her debt. She doesn’t regret her educational decisions, although she says the debt load has made her put off plans to pursue a consulting side business full-time.

So Ms. Strayer chose one of the most expensive schools in the country —George Washington — for a Master’s (in what we do not know); we have no information about why she chose to finance her education through loans (she and her parents bought new cars, clothes, and stereos instead of saving for college, perhaps?); but we are supposed to feel it is a terrible thing that at 33 she hasn’t been able to start a full-time consulting business. Why is that, exactly?

Thankfully, though he frontloads anecdotes and pity parties, Tozzi ends his piece with a clear, if far too rare, voice of reason:

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh, I have all this student loan debt,’ but I chose to take it and I have to deal with the consequences of that choice,” [24-year-old] Patricia Hudak says. “So many people in my generation think of everything as a short-term investment with immediate return.”

Finally, someone I can truly feel sorry for! Why? Because with journalists cheering it on, Ms. Hudak is exactly the kind of person that our political system will punish, making her pay not only for her own choices, but those of the Gays, Ms. Strayer, and countless other student debtors who really do think that everything, and everybody, should give them an immediate — and huge — payoff.