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Student Loan Superhero? NOT!

This story by the Wall Street Journal about a recent Harvard grad erasing his student loan debt in a mere seven months really misses the point about the real problem of crushing student loan debt.

As the reporter so blithely points out, it “helps to have a low-six-figure salary.”

Yup, folks, you read that right. The Harvard grad in question, Joe Mihalic, who is being hailed as some kind of student-loan-erasing superhero, is not only gainfully employed, but is making at least $100,000 a year.

Joe has no children. No spouse or significant other. And he has roommates to help pay to keep a roof over his head.

Good for Joe. Nothing against him. But unfortunately, his situation is just not reality for far too many of the 35 million Americans who are saddled with student-loan debt. Millions of hard-working professionals in this country don’t make anywhere near $100,000 a year and are unlikely to do so during the duration of their working lifetimes.

Outstanding student loans total close to $1 trillion — that’s trillion with a T. In a story I wrote for back in August, college students voiced legitimate concerns about whether they would be able to pay back their loans and in a timely manner.

So forget the hype. A college degree, or other studies or training after high school, is no longer a luxury. Like getting a high school diploma, a college degree or other certificate is a necessity if one is to have a chance of either being able to successfully run one’s own business or work for someone else’s. With that being the case, we as a nation should look to spending our collective tax dollars to better subsidize the cost of college or other post-high-school training.

The proposed Student Loan Forgiveness Act is a start, but people long out of college, in their 30s and 40s, also need a way to unload student-loan debt. That’s the kind of bailout this country really needs; a bailout that would help the people who are the consumers corporate players like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s depend on. It’s assistance that would directly help the working- and lower-middle-income folks — the auto mechanics, roofers, plumbers, teachers, social workers, nurse’s aides, office administrators, retail salespeople — who really make this nation run.

Child mill workers in North Carolina, circa 1910

For a “conservative,” Newt Gingrich is awfully cavalier about making radical change, at least when it comes to upending the nation’s century-old child labor laws.

Newt, who longs to be this nation’s next president, says one way he would use that bully pulpit would be to push to replace “expensive” unionized adult labor with that of cheap child labor. He says poor kids have lousy work ethics that would be greatly improved if they were paid to do things like clean toilets and man the libraries and front desks at their schools.

Not paid much, however. As Newt pointed out, another benefit of putting poor kids to work is that kid labor would “be dramatically less expensive than unionized janitors.” (See for yourself starting at :12 of this CNN segment.)

(Guess poor kids should also learn not to expect equal pay for equal work.)

Sounds like Newt, himself a throwback to the Clinton presidency of the 1990s when he served as a House Speaker, longs for a return to the 1890s and the Industrial Revolutionary growth of factories and the need for cheap human labor. Among the cheapest were children, many of whom worked 18-hour days for as little as $1.

U.S. child laborers supported themselves and their families. Both school and basic health care were luxuries few could partake of or for very long.

The plight of child laborers in the U.S. is what drove early 20th century progressives to lobby for laws limiting the number of hours and type of work children could do.  The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 basically made it illegal for kids to work before the age of 14, except for farm work. Teens had to be at least 16 to work during school hours, 14 to work certain types of jobs after school and 18 for jobs considered dangerous.

To hear Newt at a campaign stop in Iowa last week, one would think that poor kids were unjustly burdened by the “requirement” that they attend school. He likened working as a janitor or school librarian to the stereotypical part-time after-school jobs as babysitter, pizza or newspaper delivery, or retail store clerk.

“You have kids who are required under law to go to school,” Newt postured. “They have no money. They have no habit of work. What if you paid them part time in the afternoon to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in?  What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian? . . . What if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathrooms, and you paid them?”

Outrageous. In a nation still burdened by an 8.6 percent unemployment rate, what becomes of the adult office clerk, librarian or janitor in Newt’s scenario? Think they’ll end up joining the ranks of the nation’s unemployed?

And in that scenario, whom will their children witness going to work?

Because this also is key in Newt’s worldview: Children must have some adult in their lives who works if they are to have a healthy work ethic.

It’s yet another reason that poor kids need to be put to work scrubbing floors: Poor kids apparently don’t have parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, guardians, grandparents, uncles or even play aunts, who work. All of the adults in poor kids’ lives just lay about all day either doing nothing or committing crime.

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,” Newt told supporters.  “. . . they have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”

Talk about class warfare. Newt slandered poor folk everywhere. And he’s wrong in any case. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the more than 16.4 million poor children in America “live in working families.”

The problem is not that poor children don’t see adults in their families work. It’s that they see the working adults in their families making little, if any, economic progress. They see working adults doing the kinds of low-wage, no-benefits, part-time jobs that once were held by teens, like store retail clerks and food delivery men. This in turn means fewer legitimate part-time jobs for teens in need to have.

The problem is not that poor children are somehow burdened by the “requirement” that they attend school. The problem is that too many are not finishing school and getting the kind of higher skills needed to be gainfully employed in today’s high-tech workforce. Better to put money and resources into keeping all schools open until 5 p.m., providing tutoring and extracurricular programming designed to keep students engaged in learning.

The problem is not that poor children have lousy work habits. The problem is that adults like Newt, the so-called leaders charged with coming up with “big ideas” and “solutions,” just aren’t working hard enough.

And it don’t stop. For weeks, the nation has been treated to explosive coverage of the child rape/sexual molestation charges against former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. But similar charges of depravity against children occur with great frequency on a local level in stories that are unlikely to make national news. And when they involve female abusers, they are just as unlikely to raise as much outcry.

The latest was reported on Wednesday. A 42-year-old woman teaching sixth grade at a Brooklyn middle school was charged with having raped a boy at her school for two years beginning when he was 12.

Claudia Tillery is innocent until proven guilty of having sex with the boy in her home and at a motel, and providing him with drugs and alcohol. Through her lawyer, Tillery says the boy is making up the story because she once accused him of stealing a cell phone.

A court will decide the truth. But more than 10 years after Mary Kay Letourneau came to embody the crime of teachers, female teachers, having sex with the children in their care, society continues to view boys being molested by women as more a rite of passage, than a crime. And these acts, even when found to be criminal in a court of law, continue to too often be punished with relative slaps on the wrist.

Just this summer, a female Queens teacher convicted of having sex with one her 15-year-old students received a sentence of just 90 days. Compare that to the case of male Queens teacher charged with systematically sexually molesting and groping girls ages 8 to 10 over a two-year period. He faces seven years if convicted and was being held in jail on $200,000 bail.

Bail is supposed to be about simply ensuring that the accused shows up for trial, and not about the severity of the alleged crime itself. But it’s notable that Tillery, the female teacher in Brooklyn, got to go home to await trial. She was released on her own recognizance after her arraignment.

Some may argue that the charges involving the male Queens teacher involve more heinous accusations with younger victims. Perhaps. But that view still puts an onus of sophistication on boys, who even at 12 may not have fully reached puberty, and certainly are not the emotional, or often even the physical, equal of a fully-grown woman.

No matter whether the alleged perpetrator is a man or a woman, it is past time that society stops viewing the abuse of children, whether they are male or female, with a wink and a smile.

Attention Family Fliers: Control Your Kids

I was booked on a flight to Florida once and ended up on a plane that, to my horrified eyes, seemed filled to the brim with families with children. When the flight attendant offered the chance to change flights to accommodate someone else who wanted in on the overbooked flight, I practically jumped out of my seat I wanted off that plane so fast.

The memory came to me after reading a Wall Street Journal report about the rise in “baby ghettoes,” a growing practice within the airline industry to seat families with children in the back rows of planes so as to lessen their ability to annoy other passengers.

Parents and advocates for families argued that they were being unfairly ostracized and that airlines were giving in to the demands of unreasonable curmudgeons who just don’t like children. Their basic position: “Children cry sometimes.”

That’s true. And I definitely think that airline seating policies, also described in the article, that sometimes sat young children apart from their parents are really bad ideas that put children’s security at risk.

And could advocates for strict controls on children on airlines have unrealistic expectations based on a view about idyllic childhoods that perhaps never really existed? Possible.

But the real issue at hand is parenting, not children, and what responsibilities parents have to train and police their offspring.

I didn’t want to be on that family-filled flight to Florida not because I hold any animosity toward kids, but because I feared that they had been poorly trained by their parents on how to behave and interact with society at large. And that their parents had unrealistic views on how prepared their children really were to deal with some of the challenges they would face.

It’s the same for anyone who’s had to deal with poorly trained children not only on airplanes, but also at movie theaters, in restaurants, or even on the playground.

I don’t have children. But I do have nieces and nephews and little cousins – and I have had similar discussions with their parents, too.

I have no illusions that I, or any of my siblings, cousins or peers, was a little angel as a child. But I can attest to the no-nonsense childrearing of my parents and so many other parents I encountered as a child.

It was a childrearing that demanded that children understand that they were not the most important people in the world, and that consideration had to be shown to others. It’s a childrearing that is too little seen today.

Parents have to think about how their children’s behaviors may negatively impact others and work on moderating the most aggravating of them.

Then, it’s about being grown-up enough to recognize when a child may not be ready to do things like go to the movies, eat in a nice restaurant or fly the friendly skies – without perhaps being banished to the “ghetto.”


No Need to Martyr Cain’s Accusers

So far, the two women who accused GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain of sexually harassing them on the job have refused to make their identities known.

I don’t blame them.

Why become martyrs to a cause that’s not going to improve anytime soon?

They did the most that could be expected of any woman in such circumstances: They shared their complaints with their supervisors, determinations were made and modest monetary settlements were paid out to them in recompense.

That’s more than most people receive. While 1 in 6 people report being sexually harassed on the job, only 35 percent of them report it, according to the 2011 AOL Jobs Survey.

It’s hard enough deciding to report your garden-variety workplace bully, much less a public figure. Remember Anita Hill? Her decision 20 years ago to publically share what she knew about a Supreme Court nominee named Clarence Thomas when the two had once worked together resulted in a Capitol Hill circus, starring her.

Thomas still got the job.

And sexual harassment on the job still continues.

The fact that Cain’s accusers reported their complaints is commendable enough.

Doing so is hard. It’s scary.

I know.

I was once subject to a male co-worker’s verbal harassments on a daily basis. I did not perceive the abuse to be sexual in nature, but it created a hostile work environment, so much so that I suffered stomach pains and frequent nightmares.

My co-worker, when placed in a position to supervise me, would frequently scream at me about what he saw as my many shortcomings. He would belittle not only my work and my worth.

I was new to the job, new to the industry. There was definite room for improvement, no doubt, but what I was receiving was not constructive criticism with an eye toward needed training. It was abuse.

And I suffered it for months. I knew what was happening was wrong, but I feared reporting it. I feared not being believed, or that I would be seen as a crybaby and not a team player even if I was.

Luckily, I had allies on the job, other women who had been working there far longer than I and they helped to convince me to go forward and report the abuse.

I was more nervous than at any other time in my career, but I’m glad I did. My supervisor turned out to be supportive, and while my co-worker was not sanctioned, he and I were no longer scheduled to work the same shifts or shifts where he would be supervising me.

Still, I recognize that at the time that all this happened, I had little to lose. It was one of my first jobs out of college. I wasn’t up for any promotions. I had no kids, no car note, no spouse, and no need for benefits.

I don’t know if I would have made the same decision to go forward if I had had more on the line. And I don’t question Cain’s accusers’ decision not to come forward now.

Twenty bucks a month.

That’s how much my grandmother paid circa 1944 to rent a garden-level four-bedroom apartment on what was then-bucolic Fulton Avenue in the Bronx.

It’s a story my grandmother, who celebrates her 93rd birthday today, loves to tell. She was a World War II bride with a serviceman for a husband who needed to find them a home. Rents in Harlem, where she had grown up, were on the rise so she hopped aboard the Third Avenue El and rode the elevated subway line into the Bronx.

The $20 rent was so cheap that between my grandmother’s social worker income and my grandfather’s serviceman pay, rent accounted for about a quarter of their combined take-home pay.

My grandmother’s family feared it was some kind of joke. But the deal was legit.

“My sister Gloria thought it must be a scam and insisted on going back with me to the apartment that evening to see for herself,” my grandmother recalls with a laugh.

We are in her apartment watching the news when Occupy Wall Street becomes the topic of discussion. My grandmother disparages what she deems its anti-wealth message.

“Look at the type of clothes those people are wearing. Those people aren’t poor,” she says. “And we need rich people. Without the rich, we’d all be a lot poorer.”

The longtime Democrat and union member makes an argument often shared by many in the GOP: the rich must be taxed less to encourage them to build businesses and create jobs.

And innovators and business owners like the late Steve Jobs of Apple Inc., she says, deserve to be paid more than others and gain wealth.

“Should Jobs and the office clerk be paid the same?” she scoffs.

Of course not. While I am skeptical of the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy create jobs, I don’t disagree about rewarding innovation or greater risk taking with financial gain. The inventor/entrepreneur and the office clerk will more likely than not have vastly different levels of skill and education, with the entrepreneur undertaking far more financial and personal risk than the clerk.

But should the clerk be paid so little, or housing cost so much, that the clerk must shell out upward of 50 percent of her pay to have a place to live?

While I have great concerns about the viability of a “leaderless” movement that has yet to make a cogent demand, I find myself rooting for it at the same time.

Something just feels wrong about an economic system in which working people today are paying three times more for housing than in the 1940s, with wages that have basically stagnated.

The Bronx still has some of the best deals in housing. Today, median rent for a three-bedroom apartment in the borough is $1,250 a month. But in Bronx Community District 3, of which Fulton Avenue is part, median household income is $20,596 a year, or about $1,716 a month. The average family will have to pay out almost three quarters of its income to pay rent on an apartment not quite as spacious as the one my grandmother found. It is a stark contrast to the one-quarter of income my grandparents shelled out for rent in the same neighborhood.

The times may have changed, but the human need remains the same.

Perhaps that is the true message of Occupy Wall Street.

Raising Cain

Houston, we have a problem.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Austin, otherwise known as the stomping grounds of Rick Perry, the Texas governor and supposed GOP presidential frontrunner.

After showcasing uneven skills in recent Republican debates in California and South Carolina, Perry got knocked for a loop in Florida. On Saturday, Republicans in the electoral-vote-rich Sunshine State picked Herman Cain, an ex-pizza company CEO with no political experience, over Perry in their straw poll. Not only did Cain win, he won big, receiving almost twice the votes of second-place Perry.

One can almost hear the big, collective groan sigh of Republican leaders around the country. Hmmm. The former head of a pizza company (and we’re not talking Dominos) vs. the seasoned, savvy, and oh-so-very-charismatic Barack Obama.

Blank stare.

Well, if Republicans have a presidential problem, it is born of the insular politics honed by the Tea-Party-led GOP.

Perry, an evangelical Protestant, gun-toting, Southern, white male, was supposed to light a fire under a base that was somewhat underwhelmed about former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.

But then it turned out Perry lets the kids of undocumented immigrants get Texas state funds to go to college (horrors!). And he actually thinks big, bad government should play a role in inoculating people against disease. He says he would do it differently if he had the chance, but he did advocate that girls as young as 12 be vaccinated against the virus that causes cervical cancer. (Kind of like the government’s efforts during the 1950s with the polio vaccine. Don’t say it. I know. SO retro.)

On paper, Romney should probably be a shoe-in for the nomination: successful businessman, former governor, conservatively moderate. Maybe he will get there. But the elephant in the room: He’s a Mormon. Not a favored denomination by the staunch “traditional” Protestants that are the face of the Tea Party GOP. In a recent Gallup poll, a fifth of respondents said they would not vote for a Mormon if he were the nominee of their party.

Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, is a staunch conservative and a darling of the Tea Party. But no matter how loud the applause, conservatives seem to love their women as cheerleaders, not leaders of the free world. Ask Sarah Palin.  A Rasmussen poll found respondents indicating that while they would be willing to vote for a woman as president, they don’t think a woman will become president for at least another decade.

And let’s not even talk about the second string among the GOP presidential hopefuls.

Perhaps more importantly let’s not count Obama out as a one-term president.

Save Troy Davis

Dancing on people’s graves just feels like an invitation for bad karma.

Even when those people are “bad,” or at least accused of being so.

Take the case of Al-Qaeda bad boy Osama bin Laden. I was wowed as much as anyone else in May when President Barack Obama announced that his U.S. Navy Seals had killed the man said to have masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But I just couldn’t bring myself to whoop and holler in glee along with thousands of my fellow Americans.

When we as a society decide that a man deserves to die (and more often than not, those on death row are men), it is (or should be) because what he did was so heinous he should forfeit his life. But the fact that a man could commit such a heinous act in the first place is more a cause for somber reflection than celebration. The death of the man does not undo the heinous act so, really, what is there to cheer?

And so I cannot bring myself to whoop and holler at the thought of a man’s death, even if justified by the fact that he committed a heinous act. I especially cannot do so when there is substantial doubt of a man’s guilt.

Organized by Amnesty International and other supporters, hundreds of people rallied in Times Square Friday to stop the execution of a Georgia man, Troy Davis, who is set to be killed Wednesday for murdering a police officer in 1989. Only problem is, Davis more likely than not did not kill the officer.

Davis was convicted on the testimony of nine people who said he was guilty. No physical evidence ever linked Davis to the crime, and the gun used to kill the officer has not been found to this day.

Now, seven of those nine people say they lied and that police coerced their earlier testimony. One of the remaining two people was himself once a suspect in the officer’s death. That leaves the testimony of one person, only one person’s word to determine the ultimate fate of another.

A clemency hearing to spare Davis’ life is set for Monday, but if the board is not swayed by the disintegration of evidence against Davis, the State of Georgia will execute Davis on Wednesday.

There is just something bloodthirsty about a society that at times seems so eager to kill that it is reluctant to even consider that perhaps whoever is in their sights may be the wrong prey; a society that is reluctant to admit that executions are an expression of vengeance and not a means of curtailing future crime. According to, Georgia, which has 103 people sitting on death row, has a murder rate of 5.8 per 100,000. New York, which has no death penalty, has a murder rate of just 4 per 100,000.

Life is no episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” where viewers are assured that no innocent men were hurt in the production of the show.

But the rallying cries brought on by that reality are too often drowned out by the whoops and hollers of those lulled into the comfort of a world where there is never a shadow of doubt.

Let’s hope for Davis’ sake, his cries and those of his supporters are finally heard.




A Hair-y Situation

I will not let my hair hamper my health.

This is the motto I crafted a few years back when I struggled to exercise, and the appearance of my hair was one excuse of many not to.

So imagine my surprise and pleasure when the U.S. Surgeon General herself exposed this issue while speaking at a black hair show in Atlanta. Wow, I thought, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin gets it. Ah, the benefits of diversity in the halls of power.

Benjamin, like myself, is an African-American woman. And yes, hair is a “thing” within the community of black American women: not only a thing of beauty, but a thing of power and politics, a thing of conformity and rebellion.

And the thing is: Black hair can be time-consuming to care for, especially if it is relaxed, flat-ironed or pressed with heat to straighten it. (Watch Chris Rock’s movie Good Hair and you’ll get the idea.)

The concept of getting one’s hair wet with sweat during a workout after many hours and dollars spent in the beauty salon can give many a black woman pause. I used to be one of them. And with the high incidence of obesity among black women in the U.S., Benjamin was right to call attention to it while speaking to people who have almost an intimate nature with those women — their hair stylists.

Hair matters, but it should not be more important than doing what needs to be done to avoid serious health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

I probably have it easier than some of my fellow African-American sisters. My natural hair is long, very thick and curly/wavy, especially when wet. Society may prefer straight to curly when it comes to black hair, but my hair in its natural state is just a little more acceptable than if my hair texture consisted of tight coils plastered to my scalp.

Such attitudes must change. As a society, we need to support one another by being more accepting of our natural hair, whether it’s bone straight, short and tightly curled, a big, frizzy ‘fro or somewhere in between.