DEBT OR IN JAIL / by Thomas James

Before undertaking this project I was looking for an outlet to really show people the hardships being faced by not necessarily myself in-particular, but of my counterparts and those around me. I found that combining my artistry with research was the best way to do so. [Although black men were the focus of the photography in this project I recognize that these issues are widespread throughout the entire black community]

This project is centered around a two-pronged problem – black college students are trapped between two potential forms of enslavement: crippling student debt and the prison industrial complex. Even with a college degree, black students are faced with challenges of paying back high-interest loans and potential discrimination-based imprisonment...

But before we get too deep, let’s start with some impressive stats:

Black student enrollment at higher-education institutions has almost tripled since 1990. Of the 20.2 million students currently attending college in the United States, about 15% of them are black.

However...

40% of black college students drop out of school before completing their degree! On top of that, only 42% of all black college students actually graduate within the expected 4 yearscompared to the national average of 59%!

So, even though we’re getting into colleges we aren’t always able to stay enrolled or finish on time. 

When exploring why such a high number of black college students either drop out or struggle to receive their diploma, we need to examine the institutional powers that influence black students’ everyday lives.

Economic Disadvantage and the Black Family

The first and biggest reason is: THE COST OF COLLEGE. According to the Center for American Progress, 69% of black students cited high tuition costs as their reasoning for dropping out. This stat gets even scarier when you find out that 81% of black college students borrow money to pay for their schooling. That means that out of the current 2.9 million black college students, 2.4 million of them are taking out loans to pay for college.

8-out-of-10 black students take out loans to pay for their secondary schooling

8-out-of-10 black students take out loans to pay for their secondary schooling

So why is college too expensive for these black students? Because black families usually have no assets or disposable income to pull from – leaving them with student loans as their only feasible option.

The majority of black families only earn an average of $33K a year, while the typical middle-class white family, whose children make up 56% of the college student population in the United States, makes an average of $68K per year – over a $30,000 dollar annual difference!

And aside from actual income, the gap between the average white family’s and black family’s net worth is also alarming.

For those of you who don’t know, net worth is made up of more than just the money you have in the bank. Net worth is your assets weighed against your debts. An asset is anything you can quickly liquidate/sell for cash – things like your house, car, savings accounts, investments, etc. A debt is anything you are obligated to pay off – this can include your mortgage, car payment, credit card debt, student loan debt, etc. So to calculate your net worth, you subtract your debts from your assets.

The average white family has a net worth of $116,000 dollars – in contrast to the average black family who has a net worth of $1,700 dollars Over a $100,000 dollar difference! And if that wasn’t scary enough, about 40% of black families have a $0 to negative net worth.

What exactly does this mean? This means the majority of white families have a lot more money and resources to pull from in order to fund their child’s college education, while black families do not.

Now let's put these statistics into context: the average college or university has a average yearly cost of $15K – this includes tuition, fees, and room and board. Even after financial aid, most colleges cost 28% of a given family’s income. For the average black family 28% of $33K is about $10K, which would leave the family with $23K – right at the poverty line for families of 4 or more. Since a vast number of families can’t pay for college without going into poverty, the payment of schooling falls squarely on the shoulders of the black student. So in-turn, black students end up taking on even more debt. This is why a large portion of black students graduate with a minimum debt of $30K, while all other students come out with an average of $26K.

Now that we’ve covered the financial reasons, let’s consider the second biggest aspect influencing black students’ lives...

Racial Climate and Lack of Positive Racial Atmospheres

Racial climate refers to whether or not minority students feel as though their school supports their differences and/or the hardships they face as individuals belonging to a marginalized group. This supportive atmosphere is manifested through the school's faculty, staff, administration, as well as other students. It has been documented that schools with more nurturing and caring environments geared towards their black students have higher black retention and graduation rates.

Unfortunately, in a recent study it was found that over 50% of black students have been reported saying their school does not support them as a minority and that their university has a negative racial atmosphere.

With all these hardships, – borrowing lump sums of money and attending a college that does not do enough to support their minority students – one could ask: Why do so many black people even want to go to college?

Well, because college has become part of the “American Dream.” When the first lady of the United States is rapping about going to college, it’s pretty important. Forbes Magazine has been quoted stating “a college education is all but required to flourish in the labor market.” Overall, the unemployment rate for citizens without a college degree is more than double the rate of those who have one,  and on top of that, college is often seen by black people as one of the only avenues one can take in order to “make it” in life. This theory actually holds some weight when you learn that black youths are the most unemployed group in the country – 28% of black Americans ages 16 to 24 are unemployed and actively searching for employment, which is double the rate of their white counterparts.

But even with a college degree, black Americans still face discrimination in the workplace. A Princeton University study found that white men were 50% more likely to receive a call back from a potential employer than a black man with the exact same credentials. As a matter of fact, white men with criminal backgrounds were just as likely, if not more likely, to receive a call back as a black man with a degree and no criminal background.

So let me paint you a picture... If you are part of the majority of black college students that has taken out loans to help pay for your schooling and you’ve earned your bachelor's degree, you may still have a tough time securing employment, and adjusting to adult life. This is all while having to pay back your student loans that are quickly accruing interest. For many black graduates, this supreme financial struggle is a harsh reality that has crippling long-term effects – many black college graduates have attributed paying off their student loan debt as being the reason they were delayed buying a car, purchasing a home, or even starting their own business.

What's worse is that if you default on your loans, you may suffer from plummeting credit ratings, which usually means you can't finance a car or home, won’t be eligible for a credit card, or only be eligible for a card with a super high interest rate. If companies check your credit score, which some do, and they see a low credit rating, you may be subject to lower wages. Worse than that, loan defaulters suffer from a loss of federal tax benefits such as tax refunds – and remember, student loans are the only form of debt that is not wiped away by filing bankruptcy!

So let's recap: More and more black students are enrolling in college and striving to achieve the American Dream, but so many are either dropping out or graduating with incredibly high amounts of debt. Keep in mind that many of the students feel little to no minority support from their school, and also have access to little or no wealth at home, taking out immense amounts of student loans to pay for school. Now combine all of this with discrimination in the work-world and you’ve got yourself a devastating problem, because thousands of new black graduates are struggling to find work out of college every year.

What's worse though, if we focus on that drop rate for a moment...

Almost 40% of black college students across the nation are dropping out and facing many of the same problems as college graduates except for one thing – they don’t hold a degree! So, many black students went to college, accrued thousands of dollars in loans, dropped out, and now they're still not technically qualified for that high paying job with advancement opportunities. It is not difficult for one to envision how bad the outcomes of this problem can be.

Part 2

So, now that the issue of student debt has been covered, it is time now to move on to the second part of this problematic equation black students face: MASS INCARCERATION!

OK let’s review the facts:

OK, those are just some general facts… But let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Out of those 2.3 million prisoners, roughly 1 million of them are black. So, black people make up about 40% of the prison population, but only about 13% of America’s population. Black Americans are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of their white counterparts with black youths representing 26% of all juvenile arrests and 58% of all juveniles admitted to state prisons. To add to these staggering statistics, the law disproportionately comes down harder on blacks compared to their counterparts. Historically, blacks receive 20% longer sentences than whites for the exact same crimes – for example, if a white person and a black person both get arrested for marijuana possession, the white criminal might be sentenced to 5 years while the black criminal will be sentenced to 6 years.

So, what happens to these former inmates once they re-enter the free world and try to secure employment? Well, just by being incarcerated they will have already lowered their chances of being hired by 15 to 30%. 60% of employers claim they won't even consider an applicant if he/she has a criminal record. Even if these ex-cons were to be hired, on average they are offered fewer hours (240 to 440 less hours or 6 to 11 weeks less) than the average employee. That means the average ex-con working a minimum wage job ($7.25 an hour) is missing out on $1740-$3190 annually. These continuous roadblocks stand as the reasons to why ex-cons end up committing crimes again!

Here are some more stats for you:

  • 37% of former inmates are rearrested within the first 6 months of their release
  • 57% of former inmates are rearrested within the first year of their release
  • 68% of former inmates are rearrested three years after release
  • 77% of former inmates are rearrested five years after release

So why is this so dangerous for black college students? Well, police disproportionately target black people for simple infractions, like stop-and-frisk searches or random traffic stops, therefore racial profiling makes all black citizens a prime target for authorities, student or not. If you look at the facts, the majority of inmates go to jail for NON-VIOLENT offenses. Combine that with prison labor profitability and privately owned prisons, and black people become even bigger targets for law enforcement. From clothing to plastic utensil manufacturing, prison labor can be as cheap as (or even cheaper than) $1.00 an hour. Making this form of labor highly profitable.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
— United States Constitution

Privately owned prisons are also a huge issue because of their quota systems. The majority of privately owned prisons have quota systems that ensure the prison will be at least 90% full, 100% of the time. Meaning, if that goal of 90% full is not met, the prison owners can sue the state government for money lost. This financial incentive gives lawmakers, and police alike, the obligation to arrest and incarcerate more citizens – regardless of crime rates etc. And by the statistics stated above, it is not hard to guess which group of people these authorities are going to target and soon lockup...

part 3

So now the BIG question is this: Where do we go from here? Well there’s a few things we can all do and I’ll break down some options:

For my universities, proactively begin to implement programs like the “Man Up” program started at Howard University. This program hosts group sessions for male students linking them with mentors consisting of community leaders, volunteers, professors etc. discussing self-esteem, family life, problems that may be hurting their grades or making their college life difficult, or anything else causing them to possibly want to leave school. The program also provides workshops focusing on study skills, time management, and crisis management. This program is geared to help the students adjust a college life, develop study skills and good habits, staying focused, and teaching them how to communicate properly with their peers and professors.

For my future and current college students and parents, here are a few tips on how to combat student debt:

Support organizations like BlackFem that specialize in educating minorities about financial literacy, debt relief, and wealth building initiatives. Organizations like this provide extraordinary services that can teach you about student debt and how to overcome it. They also provide tools that can help you pay-off your loans while in school, and how to choose the best loan options for you before you even fill out that college application.

Fill out the FAFSA early. The earlier you apply, the more aid you are eligible for.

Apply for income driven repayment loans. Although this option can extend the life of your loan repayment, it can lower your monthly payments and making repaying your loans a little more doable.

Try to refinance your loan. Although this is a long-shot sometimes refinancing can be a good option.

For my parents, guardians, mentors, and all other concerned citizens that want to keep the youth out of trouble and away from a life constantly intertwined with the USA’s prison industrial complex,

One of the simplest ways you can support the youth is through after-school programs. Organizations like Afterschool Alliance help people locate after-school programs within their area and they provide simple ways the everyday citizen can help support their efforts.

For everyone that believes in speaking out against our prison industrial system, 

Support campaigns like the Ban the Box Campaign. This campaign looks to remove the question box “Have you ever been convicted by a court?” on job applications. Organizations like this fight to help former-inmates re-immerse within society and find jobs to help support themselves and their families.

Speak out against, or even individually boycott, companies outwardly profiting from prison labor exploitation! Groups have boycotted companies like Whole Foods and even just a small protest or refusal to shop at stores run by companies severely profiting from prison exploitation can make a difference. Here is a link to a few companies you may not have known make a lot of money off of prison labor: http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/10/10/12-mainstream-corporations-benefiting-from-the-prison-industrial-complex/2/

Lastly, speaking directly to all of my fellow college graduates, soon-to-be graduates, or anyone even thinking about attending college,

Make sure you educate yourself about all of the financial obligations relating to your loans and all the options you have. Also, make sure you recognize the hardships you or any other minority students may be faced with and be a catalyst for some sort of change in your environment. Putting this project together was a wake-up call for me, because I wasn't educated on the majority of information I was researching! So, really taking your financial liberation seriously and helping others do the same, all while staying educated on the laws/lawmakers effecting our everyday lives should be a mission for all of us! This way we don't end up in debt or in jail.

-ThomasThePhotographer