A Conversation with Robert Applebaum
We here at Pluck recently had the opportunity to chat with Robert Applebaum, the founder of Forgive Student Loan Debt, a grassroots movement that aims to unburden students from their debt in order to unleash the full potential of our economy.
Pluck Magazine: How did you first become interested in the issue of student debt?
Robert Applebaum: On January 29, 2009 - a mere 9 days after the inauguration of a man ushered into office on a platform of "hope” and “change"- I was watching cable news coverage of the Obama stimulus package and was incensed by the terms of the debate - more of the same trickle-down economics, corporate welfare, and tax cuts, the same recipe that caused the financial meltdown in the first place. It occurred to me that, as someone who pays approximately $500 per month in student loan repayments, if I was suddenly relieved of that obligation, I could use that money to spend on ailing sectors of the economy each and every month.
It seemed to me to be a more effective means of economic stimulus than tax cuts because millions of student loan debtors would suddenly find that they had additional money in their pockets each and every month that they could then use to spend (consumer spending accounts for 70% of our GDP). Until that aspect of our economy is restored, we're doomed to continue to spin our wheels.
PM: What compelled you to take your interest to the Internet?
RA: At the time, I had never blogged and didn't have a website, but I did have a Facebook account. I used the anger I described above as motivation to author the original essay that sparked the movement, Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy. I never imagined that more than 10 people would read it. However, within the first week, thousands of people had joined, and then the Huffington Post wrote a story about the new Facebook group and people started joining in droves. Ultimately, the Facebook group reached approximately 300,000 members before Facebook decided to archive "old format" groups. I had to rebuild from scratch on Facebook, however, by that time, I had already launched the website and was constantly expanding my base of support.
PM: Generally, what has been the response to your blog/site?
RA: Obviously, I touched a nerve when I wrote my original essay. 300,000 members joined the Facebook group, over 660,000 people have signed a petition I started on SignOn.org and another 32,000 people signed a petition I posted on the White House's "We the People" site. Most people have responded very positively to the proposal I put forth, recognizing that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Of course, there are some detractors who opposed what I've proposed, either on ideological grounds or because they simply don't understand the situation we're in with respect to student loan debt.
PM: What type of feedback or support have you gotten from the Forgive Student Loan Debt (FSLD) members?
RA: The members of the FSLD movement are some of the most intelligent, enthusiastic, and proactive people I've ever come across. They have a vested interest in seeing this movement succeed, but more importantly, they realize that our primary goal right now is to educate the public and policy makers that a $1 trillion dollar student loan debt bubble on the horizon has a significant suppressive effect on economic growth.
This movement differs from most others because I don't engage in fundraising and I don't demand any monetary contributions from members. Because of their debts, they're almost by definition unable to contribute money, however, their contributions of action are much more valuable. I didn't take on this issue to make money (and if I had, it turned out to be a very poor decision!). I took on this issue and stuck with it because I felt and continue to feel a civic duty to fight what I view as an enormous wrong and a terrible injustice, not to mention a potentially fatal, self-inflicted wound to our economic future.
PM: What do you hope this site might lead to politically or economically?
RA: My primary responsibility, as I view it, is to educate the public as to the inequities and injustices inherent in the student lending industry. I don't expect everyone to agree with my solution to the problem, however, I do expect those in positions of power to recognize that a very big problem does, in fact, exist. We can either be proactive about it and fix what's wrong before the bubble pops, or we can wait until we're standing in the wake of yet another economic disaster of our own creation and then try to pick up the pieces.
I have high hopes that the recent public awakening to the fact that America operates under two separate sets of rules - one for the very rich and powerful, one for everyone else - will continue to grow and that the public outcry will reach a level that simply cannot be ignored. As I said, those in positions of power don't have to accept my solution to the problem. However, what is their solution?
Economically, I continue to believe that freeing up hardworking, educated, middle-class Americans from enormous student loan debt would provide a jolt to the economy, allowing those very same people to begin spending money, to start small businesses, start families, to invent, to innovate, to invest and to unleash a whole new era of entrepreneurship and prosperity for all.
PM: Where do you find the information and resources featured on your Forgive Student Loan Debt site?
RA: Meticulous research and anecdotal tales of student loan horror. For three years, I've been on the receiving end of thousands upon thousands of messages from people from all walks of life, cutting across all cultural, geographical and generational lines, sharing their stories of extreme hardship merely because they sought to better themselves and society by seeking out an education.
One of the things I'm most proud of with respect to starting this movement is that I believe I've helped many people shed the stigma of shame and embarrassment that comes along with being in so much debt from which there is almost no escape, so that they're comfortable enough to open up and share their stories.
Student debt is an issue that has been lurking in the shadows for far too long because very few people were willing to talk about it. I believe I've played a part in helping to pave the way towards a growing recognition that it's perfectly fine to speak out against predatory lending practices, harassment by collections agencies and the lack of the consumer protections for student loans enjoyed by every other type of debt in America.
PM: What issue within the student debt crisis concerns you the most?
RA: That it's not only not going away, but getting worse with each passing day and, as a result, those burdened with excessive student loan debt cannot engage in any activities that would stimulate the economy. How do we expect the housing market, for example, to ever improve when the very people we rely upon to buy homes - college grads and professionals - are graduating with mortgage-sized debts? Just as the subprime mortgage debt debacle rendered millions of Americans "underwater" on their mortgages, millions more are "underwater" with their educational debts, owing significantly more money for their educations than they could ever reasonably pay back.
PM: What effect do you think forgiving student debt would have on the current economic climate?
RA: I believe it will unleash a whole new era of entrepreneurship, innovation and prosperity for all. A rising tide does, in fact, lift all boats. The very purpose of seeking out a higher education is to get ahead in life - to better oneself and to better contribute to society. If we're routinely failing to achieve those goals, then what is the purpose of getting an education in the first place? Saddling entire generations of people with so much debt from which there's almost no escape benefits nobody but the predatory lending industry and it significantly harms our ability to compete on a global scale in the new, 21st century economy.
Forgive Student Loan Debt began with a proposal entitled "Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy." Founder Robert Applebaum posted the proposal to a Facebook group by the same name in late January 2009 and over the course of the ensuing three years, the movement he started has grown to over 660,000 people and is increasing by the day. For more information about the movement, please register on the site by clicking here and then click here to see how you can get involved right now.
Want to have your writing featured on Pluck? We’re always looking to showcase smart, relevant pieces -- contact the editors at email@example.com to learn more
A Conversation with RaeAnn Roca of Loan Reform Now
By Pluck Staff, Published 04/04/12
A Conversation with Mark Kantrowitz
By Pluck Staff, Published 03/29/12
The Pluck Student Debt Resource Guide
By Pluck Staff, Published 03/26/12
Refreshing Solutions: A Closer Look at Sponsor Change
By Anna Victoria, Published 03/22/12
The Burden of Student Debt
By Anna Victoria, Published 03/20/12
A Conversation with Robert Applebaum
By Pluck Staff, Published 03/16/12
A Conversation with Jerika H. of Occupy UC Davis
By Pluck Staff, Published 02/29/12
A Letter from Jerika H. of Occupy UC Davis
By Jerika H., Published 02/29/12
A Conversation with Chuck Knepfle
By Pluck Staff, Published 02/17/12
By Anna Victoria, Published 02/16/12
My Exploitation of the American Student
By Aaron Calafato, Published 02/15/12
For-Profit Colleges: A Necessary Service or the Fastfoodification of Education?
By Anna Victoria, Published 01/31/12
Higher Education and Student Debt: Why is Education So Expensive?
By Anna Victoria, Published 01/23/12
What's The Damage?
By Matt Hansen, Published 01/17/12