A wise rap group from Staten Island once delivered a succinct definition of post-Reaganomics economic theory: “Cash rules everything around me.” For many millennials, student loan debt is a source of shame, anger and disappointment—a false bill of goods created by a broken system using the manipulation tactics of a seasoned multilevel marketing company. According to Forbes, student loan debt in 2020 shows no signs of slowing down; there’s a reported “45 million borrowers who collectively owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S.” Echoing the sentiments of many people in author Michael Arceneaux’s age group, I Don’t Want to Die Poor is a candid study of the hydra-like power of student loan debt and, as a result, the rising cost of freedom.
Arceneaux, a 2007 Howard University grad, is not looking for pity. Rather, this collection argues that what is truly pitiful is the state of our country’s education system, wherein higher learning, like health insurance and its associated medical expenses, can sentence already disadvantaged people to further hardship. In terms of Arceneaux’s own student loan debt, the book is a reminder that privilege always grants access to opportunity. Essays cover the pitfalls of the gig economy; the crushing impact of debt on mental, emotional and physical health; living up to cultural, societal, familial and personal expectations; the crutch of self-serving coping mechanisms; and capitalism’s ability to commodify the basic need for human connection.
Arceneaux is as entertaining as he is insightful. While pop culture references come fast and furious (the Real Housewives franchise, “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta,” Carrie Bradshaw, various R&B starlets and 90s chanteuses, vernacular and slang familiar to habitual browsers of Black Twitter, etc.), they don’t distract or take away from the overall narrative themes. In less skilled hands, the humor could feel forced and repetitious. However, Arceneaux found his voice online, having carved out a space where both vulnerability and nuanced critical thinking work together to reflect on the contradictions of our world. His voice is as familiar as that ride or die friend who isn’t afraid of your mistakes and has stuck around without judgment.
In the essay “Shrinkage,” Arceneaux writes, “You have to be able to afford choice. Happiness is expensive.” What do we lose when we let fear rule our life—the fear inspired by money and the lack thereof, the nightmarish anxiety induced by failing to conquer capitalism’s twisted labyrinth? We dehumanize ourselves. We begin to believe that our worth is dependent upon our gross net, that our value is determined by how far our money can go. Arceneaux’s essays are a reminder that debt (particularly for the generation of young people who graduated on the heels of the 2008 recession) is not indicative of one’s character. As he advises in the title essay, “Learn to forgive yourself.” Student loan debt is not a death sentence but an indictment of broken systems and the unjust, corrupt institutions that keep them alive.