What I Talk About When I Talk About Loan Forgiveness

Volunteering with a fellow intern and 2 attorneys at the Prop. 47 fair in Stockton, CA; Summer 2016.

Recently, the New York Times published an article containing a collection of stories from current and aspiring public servants. The interviewees described the implications of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program for their career choices and their reaction to the Trump administration’s apparent desire to curtail the program. Featured among the voices was that of yours truly (complete with a photo by Krista Holobar, taken at the Penn State JLIA Spring Symposium I hosted in April as the journal’s managing editor of communications). While I was happy to share my experiences and perspectives with Ms. Dickerson, I wanted to add a few thoughts to what was published in the final copy.

As the article states, I plan to begin a legal fellowship in Oakland, California this coming August. The fellowship role will involve supporting Root & Rebound’s project of assisting Californians with criminal records in navigating the collateral consequences of incarceration. Any number of reputable sources can tell you that Oakland’s housing costs are rising astronomically, and any person of reasonable intelligence could likely conclude that these costs have implications that sound far more meaningfully to the city’s long-term low-income residents, whose presence has been met with unprecedented disruption in recent years, than they do to a central Pennsylvanian with a professional degree relocating to the area for public interest work.

Put otherwise, I’m under no illusions about the current administration (or indeed, any administration, at least during my lifetime) giving the proverbial hoot about housing inaccessibility with respect to my career choices (which is not to say they shouldn’t, but that’s another Medium article). It is my belief that maintenance of the PSLF program requires no deep-dive into the comparative merits of public service endorsement and the historically hoistable American Bootstrap.

Rather, public interest loan forgiveness is an objectively cost-saving measure, and its preservation, any consideration of altruism aside, is (or ought to be) an apolitical act of fiscal responsibility.

Some facts (quick note - I highly recommend checking out Root & Rebound’s fantastic infographics summarizing this information) to start off, pertaining to the ~650,000 people who will leave jail or prison in the United States this year:

  • Half (yes, half) will become homeless.
  • Two thirds will face long-term unemployment.
  • Two third will be re-arrested within 3 years of release.

As the Bay Area, California, and many other states continue to criminalize poverty by way of over 44,000 documented collateral consequences to arrest and incarceration, those without the wherewithal to obtain legal representation are time and time again subject to homelessness, unemployment, recidivism, and re-incarceration. At the same time, Root & Rebound estimates that there is currently roughly 1 public interest attorney for every 8,000 indigent Californians.

The question I would pose to anyone seeking to dismantle PSLF is simply this: What do homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration have in common? Here’s a hint: it costs on average over $70,000 per year to house a California inmate.

Take another look at the big, bold denomination under that handsome, roguish aspiring public interest attorney in the NYT link above for a fun comparison.

So how do public interest attorneys and organizations offset these costs? Recently, California saved $130 million dollars in incarceration fees through Prop. 47, an effort I supported as an intern with the East Bay Community Law Center alongside organizations like Root & Rebound, Californians for Safety and Justice, and numerous volunteers. As noted by the article above, Prop. 47’s outcomes include some 18,000 fewer incarcerated Californians and 40,000 fewer felony convictions. So said Michael Scott and so say I: that’s a lot of guacamole, much of it attributable to the savings incurred by public interest attorneys.

To reiterate perhaps the most tired joke anyone will ever hear 9,001 times in law school, I’m not much of a numbers guy — that’s why I went to law school. Furthermore, I think that operating in a world of mere economic realities is at best an incredibly myopic and disturbing idea. But so says the bar prep section pertaining to State Practice Tests that I’m currently ignoring to write this: Know your audience and write to it. There’s an unequivocal benefit, one that in my opinion far exceeds its economic counterpart, underscoring the relevance and necessity of PSLF; one that takes the form of a manifestation of an American ideal and the solidification of an attitude toward service that the United States can and should elevate and encourage. For the purposes of this piece, however, I write to anyone laboring under the mistaken beliefs of this administration; namely that cutting programs like PSLF for alleged fiscal benefits makes any kind of sense. The bottom line is that there is a measurable benefit to PSLF, one that extends to all taxpayers and provides a benefit to local, state, and federal government far in excess of that which it provides its recipients.

Trust me. If I had $130 million dollars, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here writing this.