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The daughter who got the government to cancel her mother’s debt

“I’m going to get my mom’s loans forgiven,” read the email that arrived in my inbox 10 months ago. “So if by May 2023, when she turns 28, she needs a success story, please don’t hesitate to reach out.”

In it many years I’ve been chronicling the sorry state of the feds Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, I’ve heard of many 20-year-old student loan debtors who couldn’t navigate their way through the tangle of complex rules and red tape. Desperate parents write, too, having taken on the often part-time job of navigating the system for their son soldiers, public defenders or schoolteachers who work 60 to 80 hour weeks.

But that email from Arianna Miskin was a first: She was trying to help her mother, Susan Miskin, a retired New York City public school teacher, pay off her $92,000 balance. That debt was greater than her daughter.

What had given him hope was a temporary resignation that the Biden administration had put in place, which changed a series of rules that had blocked his mother.

I admired Arianna’s nerve. She touched me searching for her. And he wasn’t entirely sure she was capable of it.

This is what happened.

Susan Miskin first began borrowing in the late 1980s to attend a community college and take classes at two colleges in the City University of New York system to earn her bachelor’s degree. To further increase her earning potential, she received her master’s degree from Adelphi, a private university that allowed her to attend school for nine hours every Saturday when she wasn’t working.

Arianna arrived in the middle of all that and, when she was born, Susan and Arianna’s father had separated. Student loan debt, just over $30,000 in start-up loans, paid for a Saturday babysitter in addition to tuition.

For a while, the mother-daughter pair followed this routine: get up at 5 am in Staten Island, head out the door at 6, drop Arianna off at school in Brooklyn at 7. (“Thank you, Mrs. LaCerrafor letting her come in early and sit in the front office and read a book before breakfast,” Susan said). Then, at 8 o’clock, Susan arrived at the school where she worked as a speech and language therapist.

After that, Susan went to her second job working with young autistic children, while her daughter was in after school care. Pickup was at 7, sometimes earlier, and then heavy traffic returned over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to her home, a modest townhouse in the Huguenot neighborhood that Susan had purchased in 2004.

The debt repayment process had begun while she was raising Arianna, just like the confusion so many borrowers have faced over the years. There are different types of loans and various interest rates for each of them. There are many ways to pay them off, a variety of ways to consolidate them, and various ways to pay off the loans. Cancellation programs have different eligibility rules, and it’s not always clear if you meet them. Because of all the complexity, people who talk to loan servicers on the phone have often given incorrect or incomplete information.

In the midst of all this, Susan made some decisions that came back to haunt her. An employee of one of the four entities that had serviced her loan suggested consolidating her debt so that she could make a single payment each month. This can be good advice for many people, depending on the circumstances. But postpartum and sleep deprived, she said yes without asking enough questions. Her interest rate skyrocketed as a result.

Then, in the first twelve years of Arianna’s life, when expenses were high and Susan’s income had not yet reached a more comfortable range, she often cut off her loans when expenses overwhelmed her. During those 86 months, her interest accrued and the balance grew even as she started paying again. By last year, she had climbed to over $90,000, even though she had made over $30,000 in payments.

“I was the cliché single mom,” Susan said. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

It’s very easy to question other people’s choices when you haven’t been faced with a similar set of sub-optimal circumstances. But in case you were wondering, Susan took on the mortgage and tax payments to stabilize her housing costs and avoid unpredictable rents and New York City landlords.

She stayed in New York City—after moving to its less expensive confines—because that’s where her family was, because she was accumulating benefits in a boarding house there, and because Arianna finally won admission to a competitive public high school for excellent students. .

Child support? She said she nearly got fired early in her career for spending too many days in court trying to get more than the small amount she raised, and she paid a fair amount in legal fees for her efforts. .

Debtors must pay the debts they voluntarily assume in most circumstances. But it was the voters who put President George W. Bush in office to sign the invoice in 2007 who brought the PSLF program to life. Similar loan cancellation programs are also common at the state level, red, blue or purple. Encouraging people to take up teaching or other work in service to those in need or to the nation is dominant common sense public policy.

Susan, however, was not eligible. She had the wrong type of loan and was on the wrong payment plan, among other problems. PSLF has very particular rules.

Then Arianna pounced. She was, Susan told me, the kind of girl who would walk and talk at 10 months old, potty train herself, and hug bullies when they started crying.

Those resigns that the Biden administration put in place last year seemed as if they could erase all the confusing problems Susan had. They might give people credit if they had paid late and were on the wrong type of loan. And, especially helpful to Susan, they could count the forbearance time toward the 120 payments required to pay off the loan.

Arianna went to work. She spent hours on hold with the four servicers who had serviced Susan’s loans. Often, Arianna was referred back and forth in dizzying circles when she tried to track down payment records going back 10 years or more. The guardians wanted her to use fax numbers to send proof of eligibility. The fax numbers did not work.

Finally, Arianna handed everything over to a final administrator and waited. Months later, while she was on the phone with her boss in Los Angeles, where she now lives, she received a text from her mother. It was a photo of the settlement letter. The plan Arianna put in place had worked.

Arianna began to cry. Susan, who had grabbed the mail as she headed for the door, held up the letter and whooped with glee in the parking lot of the restaurant where she’d been stuck with a flat tire. People watched. She didn’t care.

“I’m so proud that she wouldn’t let me give up,” Susan said.

Arianna, who has a master’s degree in public health, has more than $100,000 in student loan debt, even though Susan juggled loans from two different retirement plans while trying to help with Arianna’s tuition. “You can’t get a good job if you don’t go to school, supposedly,” Susan said. “But you can’t get a degree because you can’t afford it. So it’s a vicious cycle.”

However, because Arianna works at a health-related nonprofit, she is about a quarter of the way toward paying off her own loans through PSLF. Now that Arianna is practically a certified expert, she is reasonably comfortable with debt.

But her mother’s, after a life of sacrifice and a career helping people who had a harder time than they did, had never been good for her. “I will never repay him for everything he has done for me,” Arianna said. “She always tells me that’s not the point of parenthood, but she’s always wanted to do it somehow.”

Now, she has. It’s a great gift, for herself for her birthday and for Susan for Mother’s Day. Arianna also received a gift. Her mother had loaned her $6,000 for moving expenses across the country and the deposit she needed to rent an apartment.

“I told her to keep it,” Susan said. “You saved me $92,000 so this one’s for mom.”

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