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Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. So by some minor miracle and by minor, I mean, actually very major, I don’t have any student loans. And that’s been on my mind because literally everybody I know is waiting for Biden to hold onto his campaign promise to cancel at least $10,000 of them. 

And it’s not that I never had any loans. My undergraduate years were covered by a full academic scholarship named for Washington University’s first Black dean—shout out to my John B. Ervin Scholars fans. And my graduate studies were deeply discounted because I was in a teaching program and my AmeriCorps grants covered most of the loans that I did have to take out for that. Frankly, it was a good thing I had that help and those scholarships because my mother was a widow. And we fit into that frustratingly well-populated window of people who make too much to qualify for a lot of grants, but make too little to pay for college outright. So I could’ve been looking at a lot, a lot of loans, but in the end, my few thousands in debt were paid off well before I was 30.

And that puts me in a very, very, very blessed, tiny American minority. Today, 46 million Americans hold nearly $1.75 Trillion (with a T) in student debt. A disproportionate number of them, of course, are women and bipoc folks, meaning I really dodged the statistical bullet. And it’s not like college is even that much of a choice nowadays. Most livable wage jobs actually require a degree. So it remains this massively expensive thing that we effectively force people into. Now, some people in my position seem to not really care about any of that. They say that since our tuitions are paid up and we worked hard to get our loans paid back, there shouldn’t be any loan forgiveness, because we didn’t have that advantage.

And therein lies the problem, folks. That classic American selfishness that says if we don’t directly benefit, nobody should. But, I mean, here’s the thing: Not only is making college free, the right thing to do, it’s actually the good thing to do for like all of us. An economy not burdened by personal debt levels in the trillions is legitly good for everybody. Yes, I said legitly—that’s how much I mean this. What’s good for marginalized folks is almost always good for everybody. And in the end, that’s the entire point. We are UNDISTRACTED.

I’m so excited about the show today. I’ll be talking to Senator Elizabeth Warren about her campaign to break down the barriers that prevent women from thriving. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Here’s the deal. About two out of every three Americans, and that includes Democrats and Republicans, say we got to cancel student loan down. Yeah, we just got to do this. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up. But first, it’s the news.

This has been a heavy week for news. From President Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea to Congress yesterday to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine, to anti-trans bills making their way through legislatures in 11 states to the brutal hate fueled attack on an Asian elder in New York. I don’t blame you if you are feeling despair. But I want to remind you of something our guests said last week. Mary Annaïse Heglar: She said our elders in the civil rights movement were sometimes motivated by hope and sometimes were plain pissed off. And so with that, get ready to stay mad because here comes the news. 

Now, you know, we’ve been pissed off about voter suppression all spring on this show. By mid January alone, the Brennan Center for Justice had tracked more than 250 bills restricting voting in state legislatures. But this one, this is a whole new type of terrible. Florida lawmakers have approved an elections police force. The first of its kind in the US. This new Office for Election Crimes and Security is on paper, meant to investigate when there are alleged violations of election laws. 

But voting rights advocates point out that the 25 staff members are most likely to intimidate voters and further chip away at voting rights. And one thing these new election cops will be on the lookout for is “ballot harvesting.” That’s the practice of collecting absentee ballots in churches or in the community and turning them in together.

This is a completely common practice, particularly in communities where people live far from polling places, another form of voter suppression, or they have other access issues. And as part of these new restrictions, having two ballots at once will become a felony.  

The last thing America needs is more cops, especially not the ones who add to the already long list of the ways we suppress the vote. We don’t need more cops in the street. We need more people in the street canvassing to get rid of these manipulative state legislators and protesting this steady attack on our democracy. 

This week in “water is wet” news, prejudice is bad for your health. I know surprise, surprise, but according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association, living in areas with higher rates of prejudice is associated with negative health outcomes. Researchers cited the psychological stressors of discrimination as a leading cause for everything from preterm birth to premature death. This adds to existing research that proves once again, that experiencing racism is bad for you inside and out.

It’s a cycle that has to end. As friend of the pod Uché Blackstock told us back in February: 

Dr. Uché Blackstock: There’s nothing biologically deficient about our bodies, but what happens to our health, our bodies by living in a society with systemic racism. And they’re just all of these factors that are worsening our health, basically. And they worsen our health outcomes. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham We have to address this inequality at a systemic level. Yes, we need better access to preventative care, but we also need affordable housing, better school infrastructure, better transportation, better wages, and a pipeline of Black and Brown doctors who understand our experiences and actually hear us when we tell them what hurts us.

Finally, if you’ve been on Twitter at all this week, you’ve heard Jane Campion’s name.  

While accepting the award for Best Director at the 2022 Critics Choice Awards, she had this to say

Jane Campion: And Serena and Venus, you are such marvels; however, you do not play against the guys, like I have to.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Interesting. Venus Williams and I made the same face. Oooh. Jane is speaking as if gender is the only form of oppression to exist and she completely sidesteps that pesky little thing called racism or the combination thereof of anti-blackness and sexism known as misogynoir that Venus and Serena have had to face their entire careers. They’ve also had to compete with men for equal pay and respect in the field. Jane has since apologized, calling her comments thoughtless and saying that she “did not intend to devalue these two legendary Black women and world-class athletes.”

Listen, we appreciate the apology and Venus and Serena may not even be that mad, but what it definitely was for Black people everywhere was a reminder of just how frequent microaggressions are and just how often we have to laugh through them lest we be called the angry Black person. One clear thing is missing a basic understanding of intersectionality.

That was a peak white feminist moment. And I will kindly and say, you look wild. So please sit down and go read some Kimberlé Crenshaw. You can even listen to her on UNDISTRACTED

Coming up, I’ll be talking to the Senator Elizabeth Warren about why the path to abortion rights, gun control, student debt relief, and more go through Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, right after this short break.

And we are back. Something very interesting happened last week. Student loan services, those companies that blow up your phones until you pay the feds back their money with interest—they were instructed by the Biden administration not to reach out to borrowers. So currently student loan repayments are on hold until May.

And that moratorium on payments is part of the pandemic relief package that has helped more than 40 million borrowers save more than a hundred billion dollars during the pandemic. Loan servicers are required by law to reach out to you six times before loan repayments begin. So when the President says don’t reach out, it could be a sign that the moratorium may be extended.

But endless extensions are really just a bandaid on a gaping wound. According to a Data for Progress poll from December, 49% of borrowers are not at all confident they’ll be able to repay their loans when the moratorium ends. Let me remind you, borrowers in the United States owe $1.7 trillion. And with that amount of money, you could buy 4.6 million houses or you could start 43 million small businesses, or you could send 110 million people to college for four years. And that’s to the private schools, child. Now my guest today wants to unlock all that potential and more. And she could have been president because, you know, women are electable if you elect them.

But this is one woman who never gives up the fight no matter the position she holds. Senator Elizabeth Warren has been fighting for student loan debt relief since she first joined the Senate nearly a decade ago. I wanted to talk to her about student debt as an issue of gender and racial justice; taxing the rich; and what’s blocking her vision for radically shifting the center of power in Washington. 

Senator Warren, it is fantastic to see you again. Thank you for joining us. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren I am so happy to be with you. You know, it’s been too long. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It has been too long. Absolutely. I’m glad to reconnect. There’s so much I want to talk to you about in a short period of time, but you know, we’re, we’re having this conversation during Women’s History Month.

It’s of course been a long pandemic and before that, and even longer presidency, but I’m curious, what is your state of the union for women? How do you feel women are fairing from where you sit in the Senate?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren So, here’s how I see it. Women are tougher than ever, more engaged than ever, pushing harder than ever.

But the truth is, there’s just a lot of barriers that we’re not breaking down here and I’ll mention two. One is childcare. We’ve got women, hundreds of thousands of women out of the workforce, can’t go back into the workforce because they’ve got little ones to care for. And you know, it was a crisis before the pandemic, but post-pandemic, it’s just become a killer.

And yeah, we can all say it’s about parents. And it is. But this falls hardest on women. And the gains of getting back to work have been much more men than it has been women. So we all talk about it. We’re all exercised about it. There’s like a hundred zillion newspaper articles about it. An economic analysis. And dammit, we cannot get Congress to move on this. So that’s one. 

The second one I’d mentioned is student loan debt. Student loan debt is a women’s issue. Almost two thirds of the $1.75 trillion outstanding in student loans is held by women and, specifically, women of color, Black women are disproportionately impacted by student loan debt.

The president has the power to cancel that debt. I’ve been pushing him along with Ayana Pressley and Chuck Schumer to cancel $50,000 of student loan debt. And we get, again, a bazillion news articles about it and people talking about it everywhere and pushing; we just haven’t gotten it done. So I described this as a moment of pushing hard against the barriers, but the barriers have not broken.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You know, I want to double-click on this student loan debt crisis because that’s really what it is. When you talk about that $50,000 cancellation, we’re talking about a $50,000 cancellation per person in federal loans. But you’ve been in this fight for years. Like you said, you’ve been pushing President Biden. I know from the outside, we see you Tweet at him nearly every day, asking him to cancel that student debt. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Pretty much. Sometimes twice a day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Whatever it takes. We know you’re having these conversations internally. I’m curious, when you talk to him in person, what does he tell you about why he hasn’t done it yet? 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren So I’m not going to talk about personal conversations cause I want people to still have them and that’s true with the president, but also with others, but I’ll say this.

I don’t get pushback that it’s a bad idea. I just get it doesn’t happen. And, you know, there are a lot of other political considerations, other things going on, but my view on this is that the urgency of this moment is more intense than ever. And I mean that literally. You know, I’ve been in this fight for a long time.

The very first bill when I was just a baby Senator, I’d only been there a few weeks. I introduced my first bill to reduce the student loan debt interest rate. And I got to tell you that was like, so out there, that there were folks in the Senate and the House that I thought were going to have vapors; I thought we were going to have to pull out the smelling salts.

And now the good news is, we have built a whole national conversation on this. There are people all around this country and I get it. Not everybody agrees with us on cancellation, but here’s the deal: About two out of every three Americans, and that includes Democrats and Republicans, say we got to cancel student loan debt. We just got to do this. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It’s a gender justice issue as you mentioned. You also mentioned that it’s a racial justice issue. We know research shows that after 20 years of payments, the typical Black borrower still owes 95% of their initial student loan, while the typical white borrower only owes about 5%. And we’ve spoken before, Senator, about how we really can’t close the racial wealth gap without ending student loan debt.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren And you know it is the reminder. We like to talk about the word, you and I both do, intersectionality, how things fit together and how it’s, you get hit if you’re female and you get hit if you’re Black and if you’re Black and female, how both of those compound. It’s like on the economic side, all these pieces start hitting harder.

So if you’re Black, you have to borrow more money to go to school. You borrow more money while you’re in school, and then you have a harder time paying it off when you get out of school. And then the consequences of that snowball on itself. So if you’ve got student loan debt, you’re less likely to be able to save up for a down payment on a house and less likely to buy a house.

In fact, you’ll, you’ll love this. When I first did my debt cancellation, I’m really going to come in and try to move Congress on this: Do you know the first group that came in and met with me and said, we want to endorse your bill? This has been got five, six years ago now. It was the realtors. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham They would be selling more houses.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren They said, I get all these young people who come in, they’re ready to buy their first home. Maybe they’re getting a little help from their folks. Maybe they’re not; they saved it up. And then the bank looks at him and says, whoa, look how much student loan debt you have. 

But I raised that by way of saying, look, what that means. It then cuts out the people with student loan debt, just as a group, not every one of them, but the group is less likely to buy homes. You and I both know, it tends to be an appreciating asset over time. So you delay by five years or 10 years or 20 years getting into a home. You don’t get to build that wealth.

Same thing is true on starting a small business. So it turns out if you have student loan debt, you’re less likely to be able to go out there and start a small business. And that means folks who, you know, might’ve made it big in those businesses, they just get cut out. And so that’s how all these pieces just keep reinforcing each other. 

Education was supposed to be about everybody got a chance. If you’ve worked hard, if you learned, this was your chance to show what you could do. And instead of becoming a way to level the playing field, post high school education is becoming a way to tilt it harder against African-Americans, to tilt it harder against women. And that’s all because of policy choices we make. We got to change this.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You know, I’m curious about who benefits from this stasis, because we know that it is wildly popular to cancel student loan debt. But when something that is wildly popular is not happening in Washington, it is normally because somebody very wealthy is behind the opposition. So who exactly benefits from us not fixing this?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren So, first of all, it’s everyone who doesn’t want to pay taxes to keep the government running. So the Jeff Bezos and the Elon Musks of the world who have a bazillion bazillion dollars in wealth, but carefully arrange things because they figured out how to work the system, a system that the lobbyists for the rich and the powerful made sure had plenty of loopholes.

Those folks don’t want to have to pay to run the government. They’d much rather say let’s lend the money. Let’s let all these interest rates pile up. And then let’s squeeze these folks for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and run the government, at least in part off their backs. That’s part of it.

And then part of it is just rich folks just don’t see this as an urgent problem. You know, they can afford to send their kids to college. And they say, you know, we got a lot of things we need to do, not on my list. Many of them will say, and this is the one actually. I also want to say there’s something that really chaps my fanny on this, is the number of people, people closer to my age, who said, well, you know, I worked hard and I worked part-time job and I made it through college and nobody helped me. And because nobody helped me, I don’t want to help anybody else. I went to college. Four-year college, became a public school teacher. I went to a college that cost, drum roll, please: $50 a semester. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham My goodness.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren So think about that. I worked…

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Can we press rewind on that?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren That’s exactly right. I work a part-time waitressing job and it will more than pay for my tuition, my books, and at least part of my living expenses, just right there working 15 hours a week, waiting tables, you can manage it. And remember it didn’t cost $50 a semester because of some natural law—because of gravity or sunshine—it costs $50 a semester because taxpayers put money into those public colleges and universities to keep them affordable. And what’s happened over the last two generations is that there’s been less and less money that’s gone into public higher ed.

That means also there’s been less and less downward price pressure on the private schools as well. And so college costs have just shot through the roof. So opportunities, you know, my, my daddy was a janitor. My mom worked a job answering the phones at Sears for minimum wage. They couldn’t afford to send me to college, but there was a real meaningful full-time college opportunity available for me.

And let’s just be blunt. It’s not there for our kids today. It’s just not out there. And so my generation, you know, says we got our education available to us, paid for in large part by taxpayers. People that are a little older than I am, had the GI bill and, of course, in many places carefully cut African Americans out of that opportunity.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren So white folks of a certain age had a whole lot of opportunity there. And then as time goes by that opportunity just ratchets down. And so people who are just, just trying to have a shot, just, just a fighting chance to build something, really get cut out of the system and dammit, none of this has to be. We make our policies. We get to decide. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham We do get to decide, and yet we come up against very real roadblocks. So if I zoom out a bit and look at even more of the policies, not just that we know are wildly popular and that people want, but policies that people truly need. Right, we’re talking about cannabis legalization, obviously student debt cancellation. We’re also talking about voting rights protection, and affordable family care. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Gun safety.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Gun safety, right. Things that are really necessary for us to live the kind of thriving lives we deserve. And I think a lot of Americans have gotten a very real and recent education on the filibuster and how those pesky 60 votes thresholds in the Senate really hold up a lot of the things that we really need.

So I’m curious, in your perception, what do you think is blocking filibuster reform and how do we, the people, the Congress, how do we get past that roadblock? 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Okay. So what’s blocking filibuster reform is we just don’t have quite enough Democrats who are on board for it. I mean, let’s face it. Republicans don’t want it and they’re never going to want it.

And that’s that. And you know why? Because there are only two things that most Republicans want to do. They want to cut taxes for the rich and the powerful. And the second thing is they want to appoint really right-wing judges, judges that will gut voting rights, judges that will gut women’s rights. That’s what they’re looking for.

Two things. And guess what? There’s no filibuster on either one of those. You cut taxes through reconciliation, that takes 50 votes and you will appoint justices to the Supreme Court and all the judges on 50 votes. So you see this asymmetry, the things the Democrats want to do, let’s go through the list again, right?

That actually we want to pass a law to protect Roe v. Wade. We could do that. About 70% of Americans want to see us do that. Gun safety. Raise the minimum wage. You’ve gone through it. Cancel student loan debt. We’ve got all these things we want to do, but for all of them, we’re hit by the filibuster.

We’ve got to have 60 votes to get it done, not 50. Look, the only reason that’s the rules is because we don’t have 50 votes to change the rules. That’s all it takes. So can I give you now my optimistic view of the world? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Absolutely. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren We’re a whole lot closer than we’ve ever been before. I started talking about the filibuster about four years ago, people were like, uh, we can’t do that.

You know, there were the handful who wanted to, but just a handful now. We’ve had 48 Democrats vote to change the rules and get rid of the filibuster 48. All we need is 50. So I know how many times we’ve all said, Gear up! This election. Let’s go, baby. You know, we’ve given the cheer, but the truth is, and that’s where you and I started this conversation, there has been a lot of movement. 

We’re talking about things we weren’t talking about eight years ago and six years ago and four years ago. And even on student loan debt with Joe Biden in the White House, I want to actually give out some credit here. They have actually canceled debt for a lot of people under the public service loan forgiveness program, they’ve canceled a lot of debt for people who got cheated by these damn for-profit colleges. They’ve canceled a bunch of debt for people with disabilities, permanent disabilities. 

And God bless them on that. That is good stuff to do. But in other words, all the work that everybody who’s listening to this has put in, it’s actually paid off. It has been life changing for already millions of people, but we need to go bigger. And think what we could do with two more Democrats in the United States Senate. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Before I let you go, because too sounds like such a tangible thing.

And yet, with all of these crises domestically, globally, people are exhausted. People are wondering if showing up and engaging our government institutions will really truly matter in the end. And I’m wondering when you’re sitting sipping your tea and you’re thinking about what to say to those folks, what do you have to say about why we shouldn’t be despondent right now?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Well, partly because I hope you understand that the billionaires who don’t pay taxes. And the giant corporations that don’t pay taxes. Yes. Amazon, I’m looking at you. They hope you’ll be despondent. They hope that that depression just settles right over you. And you say, you know, there’s no point in showing up. They hope that you will not realize exactly how much is on the line and how close we are.

And I just want to point out; we have two states: Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Joe Biden won in which there are Republican Senator in one of them, Wisconsin, and an open seat that has been held by a Republican and the other Pennsylvania, that we’ve got a real shot to come in and take those seats. We take those two seats and buckle up because the world truly is going to look different.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, Senator, it’s always great talking to you. I appreciate your time and I, more than that, appreciate you consistently buckling up and showing up for us. Thanks so much. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren You bet. You take care now. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You too. Senator Elizabeth Warren is the senior US Senator from Massachusetts.

Now I know you kept hearing us talk about that pesky filibuster. Essentially the US Senate rules allow for you to block a vote on a bill by refusing to vote for what’s called cloture. Without 60 senators voting for cloture, it can’t move forward. So even if a majority of senators want to vote yes on a bill, a minority of senators can stop that by voting against cloture.

It is a dusty old rule that is a time-tested favorite of racist and segregationists. And that should not be the team you choose. But the good news is that we only need 50 senators to agree to get rid of this supremely undemocratic rule. And like Senator Warren says, we are just two senators away from getting there. Sinema and Manchin. Manchinima. 

The two no votes aren’t up to be voted out yet. So we got to get two different guest votes. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are looking like our possible saviors on this front. The filibuster is standing in the way of so much that we need to get done for everyday folks, student debt relief, federal legislation, protecting abortion, voting rights, our climate.

I don’t know how many different ways to say this cause the literal future is at stake, but even before the fall elections, President Biden can cancel student debt all on his own at that resolute desk if he can muster the courage. So forget kicking the can down the road with more moratoriums. It’s time to listen to the people, hell, to the realtors, and free folks from the bonds of this crushing debt.

If you could spend $686 billion on the military or send billions over for that iron dome or give Jeff Bezos and his homeboys, all these tax breaks, you can give the American people a break. It’s like that Tik Tok sound. What do you want to say to Joe Byron? Right now? Me? Bing bong, cancel the debt. All of it. 

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward. 

Our associate producer is Alexis Moore. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks and Hannis Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or most places you get your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being and thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.