A surprising dilemma is plaguing elderly Americans. It’s a crisis usually associated with millennials, but millions over 60 are dealing with it in stark terms.
“This is a mountain that I will never be able to climb,” said 76-year-old Seraphina Galante. “I am terrorized.”
Galante wasn’t talking about a disease or medical expenses. She was talking about her student loans. Galante is one of an estimated three million Americans over 60 dealing with student debt. Elderly Americans owe a massive $86 billion slice of the $1.5 trillion total U.S. student debt pie.
And while student debt is crushing the young, the elderly are increasingly suffering as well.
“I don’t see the justice or even the logic. It’s not gonna reduce, ever. And the emotional part of it that it’s there. That it’s always gonna be there,” said Galante. “This will follow me to the grave.”
Stories like Galante’s have spurred the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) to take interest in student loans. In particular, the AARP is fighting the all-too-common practice of student loan companies garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly debtors. Social Security garnishment is common among the 40% of student loan debtors over 65 that are in default.
“We consider it a looming threat,” said Lori Trawinski, director of banking and finance at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “The idea that you could have student loan debt of your own that lasts 20 or 30 years, and then pick up some for your child that could last another 20 or 30 years—you’re looking at a lifetime of carrying student loan debt in some form.”
To make her student loan payments, Galante works as a family caregiver consultant. Her income-based monthly payment of $176 doesn’t even cover her interest, let alone touch her $40,000 debt. And she’s not paying off her children or grandchildren’s education — she’s paying off her own.
“The fastest growing segment of student loan borrowers are actually older Americans,” said Seth Frotman, a student debt expert formerly of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Because of student loans, we are literally driving tens of thousands of older Americans into poverty.”
This long shadow of student debt has made the issue of student debt forgiveness, a 2020 Democratic campaign issue, one of multigenerational interest.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.