broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “April, 2018”

The Woman Question

The Woman Question

H. Bradford

4/21/18

I have not written a poem for EVERY book that I have read this year, but this a poem inspired by Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women.


When did the oppression begin?

Was patriarchy painted on the walls of caves

long before women gave birth on factory floors?

Is it passed down in property

or built into the body?

Maybe it’s just all in the family.


And what is the value of labor unpaid?

Is the value surplus?

Is it use?

Or is there any value in the question at all?


What exactly is a woman?

A person, a place?

Or a thing we made from mud of ribs, breasts, and sin.

Is it an idea to divide us by pieces and parts?

An excuse to pay some less or nothing at all

so that society lives long enough to work another day?

Image result for lisa vogel socialism and marx

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Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

H. Bradford

4/11/18

On February 24th, the Duluth News Tribune ran an article about Duluth’s impending demographic crisis.  I wanted to write a socialist feminist response to this, but never got around to it.  Not that I am the authority on socialist feminism, but I am a feminist and a socialist…and I do think about these things…so, why not break it down?  Now, whenever I hear the word “demographic crisis” I want to run for the hills, or burn something, or both.  Not really, but I think it is one of those sexist, ageist, racist, pro-capitalist concepts that begs to be dismembered.   Here is why…

Ageism:

Early into the Duluth News Tribune article, when describing the shifting population of the Duluth region, the aging population is described as problematic.


“If population levels were even across age groups, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, as you may have heard, the largest generation in the country’s history is marching into retirement, leaving many jobs vacant just as unemployment levels are bottoming out and productivity growth is stalling (Johnson, 2018).”


It is true that our population is aging, but, one must consider why this is a problem.  According to the article, it is a problem because there will not be enough workers to replace those who retire.  On the surface, this seems like a problem, as society needs workers to produce things.  However, this frames the post-retirement age population as the cause of a social problem.  Framing the older population as a “problem” is ageist.  It also ignores their labor, as labor does not end when wage labor ceases.  Their contributions to society do not cease when they reach the age of 65 (or higher ages for the many people who do not have retirement savings, pensions, or the ability to survive on social security alone).  Older adults do unpaid work such as volunteering, caring for grand children, gardening, baking, canning, sharing their knowledge, checking up on one another, and a plethora of other important economic activities that are dismissed because they are unpaid.  Just as the invisible, unpaid labor of women is ignored as a natural or unimportant, this invisible labor and its contribution to society is also ignored.


This connects to the socialist feminist concept of social reproduction.  Basically, in capitalist society, the labor force must reproduce itself.  This can literally mean that the work force must replace itself through biological reproduction, but also means that each worker must sustain themselves through sleep, eating food, washing clothes, maintaining their health, relieving stress, and all the many things that are required to survive and work another day.   Typically, women have played an important role in providing the invisible, unpaid labor that keeps the work force …working.  Caring for children, giving birth, caring for the elderly, washing clothes, cleaning a home, doing dishes, making meals, grocery shopping, etc. are all important unpaid activities that ensure that capitalism will continue.  Of course, older adults who leave the work force also provide some of these services as they are “free” to (my own grandparents made many meals for me, baby sat me, bought me school clothes, taught me information, etc.).  Thus, is it really a problem that people grow old?  Aging is a natural process.  It may happen that we have an aging population, but why is this a problem?  Some people might respond that it is a problem because this group requires more care and there are not enough young people to care for them.  The article itself argues that it is a problem that there is not enough workers to fill jobs and that productivity will decline.


I am not an expert on matters of aging, but I imagine that the “problem of aging” could be mitigated by providing quality, free health care to people of all ages, along with clean environments, living wages, robust pensions, housing, etc.  The aging population might very well “age better” if a high quality of life was ensured for people of all ages.  What does it mean to “age well” anyway?  I think to most people means the ability to care for one’s self, enjoy a high quality of life, and live independently for as long as possible.  If this is what this means, the locus of “aging well” is framed as an individual responsibility and the very human need for care is viewed as burdensome.   This concept is very individualistic and puts the rest of society off the hook for taking responsibility of providing and caring for the variable needs of older adults.  It is also ageist, as aging well is basically the ability to live as similarly to a young person for as long as possible.  Maybe it is okay to be wrinkly, sedentary, crabby, or anti-social.  Society is awful.  Living through decades of economic ups and downs, cuts to social programs, pointless wars, and the general nonsense of everything deemed meaningful by society might sour a person against living with youthful optimism and vibrancy.   After years of being alive, “aging well” might seem like a racket to sell beauty products, skin treatments, fitness memberships, etc.

Image result for aging well

(This image leads me to believe that aging well has something to do with being white and wealthy.  Capitalism doesn’t have resources to spare on caring for the elderly, so make certain you stay healthy with fresh air and bike rides in the country.)


If indeed there is a shortage of workers, there are certainly plenty of people in the world and United States itself.  These people might be more inclined to move to this frigid region and provide elder care if this was not low paid, under appreciated service work but unionized with benefits (including retirement plans!), better wages, and better working conditions.   A true shortage of workers might require open borders to allow new workers to enter the country, but this would require a move away from our current racist, xenophobic, nationalist, and exploitative immigration policy.  The “aging population problem” is not a problem with age, but an ageless problem of capitalism to meet the basic needs of humanity.


Of course, the notion of declining productivity must also be challenged.  Why is it a problem when productivity declines?  Why must productivity always increase?  What does this mean for the environment?  When have we produced enough?!  Productivity is a problem in capitalism because of the tendency for profits to decline.  Because competition lends itself to increased investment in fixed capital and there are human thresholds of how much variable capital can be exploited from workers, profits decline over time.  Markets also become saturated as there is only so much people can buy (again because wages only allow so much consumption).  When too much is produced and too little is consumed, capitalism falls into a crisis, which Marx called the crisis of overproduction.  Therefore, productivity is not necessary good.  It is not good for the workers (who must work longer or harder).  It is not good for the environment (as it creates waste and overuse of resources).  And it is not even good for capitalism, since it lends itself to instability.  I think it is important to think against blind productivity and instead think about rational, careful production in the interest of human needs.

Image result for garbage dump gull

(Capitalism probably produces enough…  though I suppose the gulls don’t mind.)


Sexism:

Another reason why I dislike the concept of “demographic crisis” is that it is sexist.   Although the article only mentions it briefly, increasing birth rates is often suggested as a way in averting the crisis.  Even if it is not mentioned in detail in the article, it is implicit in the premise of the argument.  If the population is aging and this is a problem, that means that not enough new people are being born.  Thus, not only are older adults the problem, the bigger problem is that women are not gestating enough babies.  The bodies of women have long been treated as public property, inasmuch as their reproductive power is harnessed for state interests.  The fight for reproductive rights is a fight to liberate women from their role as the producer’s of the next generation of soldiers and workers.  The birth rate in the United States (according to 2018 CIA World Factbook Information) is 12.5 births per 1000 people.  Our birth rate is slightly higher than the UK, Sweden, France, and Australia which all have 12.x births per 1000.  The rate is higher than Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Denmark, which have 10.x births per 1000 people.  Our birthrate is certainly greater than South Korea, Japan, and Germany, which range from 8.x to 9.x births per 1000 people.  Despite our higher birth rate, there is enormous pressure upon women to reproduce- to the point that the organized movement against abortion has made birth nearly compulsory in many parts of the country due to restricted access to abortion.  In many of these countries with lower birth rates, the issue of abortion is far less controversial.  Here, anti-choice activists bemoan the loss of millions of fetuses, which they argue contributes to our demographic crisis (fewer workers, fewer students, etc.)   At the core of demographic crisis is a demand to control reproduction- because if population is viewed as a resource, women’s bodies are responsible for producing this resource.


 In the context of capitalism (and unfortunately many economic systems), population is treated as a resource.  Workers need to reproduce so that there are more workers.  This leads to a precarious balance.  Capitalists do not provide for the reproduction of labor (this has often fallen upon women and families) as this requires an investment in workers.  At the same time, workers have to have a basic level of sustenance to continue working and to allow for a new generation.  For instance, if a woman works too hard or consumes too few calories, she may stop menstruating.  Therefore, workers generally have a basic threshold of exploitation which if reached these workers will no longer be able to survive and reproduce.   In the United States in particular, our status as a world power has an economic component and a military component.  The military domination of the world is an extension of the economic component, as military might ensures access to markets, thwarts competitors, offers access to capital (for instance natural resources and labor), etc.  For the United States to remain an economic and military power, babies must be born.  Babies are needed so that there will always be a supply of soldiers and workers.  Reproduction is a national interest.  I think this contributes to the controversy around abortion and the drive to limit it.
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(A piece of art that I created called Capitalism is Built on the Bodies of Women)

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, capitalism has a contradiction.  On one hand, in seeks to increase profit by extracting more surplus value from workers.  Because profits decline over time, workers are pressured to work harder and longer.  This increased exploitation limits the ability to reproduce labor (to reproduce biologically, but also to maintain a certain level of health as workers).   In the United States, not a lot of profit is redistributed towards caring for our existing population (i.e. ensuring the reproduction of labor).   We do not offer paid parental leave.  We do not have free day cares.  There is a shortage of housing.  Health care is expensive.  The list goes on.  The conditions of capitalism are so extreme that 5.8 infants die out of 1000 born.  In Japan, two infants die per 1000 births.  In Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, there are slightly more than 2 infant deaths per 1000.  In the European Union as a whole, there are about 4 deaths per 1000 according to the CIA world Fact Book.  Once again, rather than a demographic crisis, our crisis is an inability to care for our population.  Certainly, anyone worried about our economic or military strength might begin by tackling the causes of infant mortality.  But, this would mean diverting profits towards human needs.  Re-thinking profits and capitalism itself would undermine the logic of militarism and nationalism.


Supposing that the United States provided free access to abortion, birth control, all health care, and social conditions favorable to reproduction (paid leave, free day care, adequate housing, etc.)  Even if these conditions were met, women have no obligation to reproduce the next generation.  They should not be scapegoated for demographic crisis.  In the end, it is up to society to creatively adapt to changing populations- not women.


Racism and Classism:

The article concluded that a key to averting Duluth’s demographic crisis is promoting immigration to the city.   Regarding this point, Mayor Larson said,  “Duluth needs to be a community that is welcoming and open to new experiences, new faces, new ethnicities, new races to solve workforce shortages (Johnson, 2018).”  I think that it is generally a positive, feel good conclusion, since well, who doesn’t want Duluth to be a more welcoming city?  The mayor suggests working with education and health care partners to attract more diversity to the city.  Hmm…alright.  What does really this mean?


In a subtle way, the statement hints at what kind of diversity is acceptable in Duluth.  I interpret working with education and health care partners to mean attracting diversity by attracting professionals of color.  The center of this argument is not “let’s build more low income housing so we can attract all of the African Americans in Chicago or Minneapolis who are on housing waiting lists and house those who already exist in our community!”  Duluth DOES have some racial diversity BUT, this diversity is segregated into poor neighborhoods, homeless shelters, and jail.  Yet, because they are poor and people of color, this population is not seen as a solution to the “demographic crisis” because they are an OTHER at best and problem at worse.  They are those people.  Those people who are blamed for crime or making things not like they used to be for white people.  This is another problem with the notion of “demographic crisis”- since demographic crisis always refers to the shortage of a desirable population.  We have a low income population that would probably be happy to invite friends and relatives and grow if Duluth was a more welcoming, less racist, expanded housing, housing and employers ceased discrimination against criminal backgrounds, day care was expanded, public transportation was more reliable, schools were not segregated and plainly racist, etc.


Truly making Duluth a city for everyone, as the Mayor suggested, would mean changing what Duluth is right now.  Right now, Duluth is focused on being a city for business.  In particular, it is a city for businesses that serve tourists.  Centering the city on the tourist industry makes Duluth a city not for everyone, but for middle class, mostly white people, who have the leisure and money to stay at a hotel or the outdoor gear to enjoy our nature.   Duluth can’t be a city for business and for everyone.  We CAN be a city that is for everyone that happens to attract tourists, but the reverse is not possible.  The reverse is what has made Earned Safe and Sick time so controversial, as segments of the business community that are most opposed to it are those sectors that serve tourists (restaurants and hotels).  The reverse has also been what has stalled the Homeless Bill of Rights- because homeless people are a “problem population” not one that should be accounted for in “demographic crisis” and certainly not one that deserves to be treated with basic dignity.  After all, they might just spook the customers!  If we want to be a city for everyone, then we should start by being a city for workers, for the homeless, for people of color, and all of the oppressed in our community.


Conclusion:

Duluth is just one city.  It would be pie in the sky to try to think we can build socialism in a single city.  Many of my suggestions require a massive struggle on a national scale to accomplish.  I do believe that we have local activists with the talent and audience to contribute to such a national struggle.  I am not one of them, but am a small and marginal voice in that struggle.   Beyond the national, there are some things that can be done on a local level.  We can focus local priorities on meeting human needs and support things such as Earned Safe and Sick Time and the Homeless Bill of Rights.  We can challenge the policies of our schools and police to make the city less racist and classist.  We can also think against business interests and promote diverting profits towards social good.  Beyond these material things, I wrote this because I wanted to challenge the ideological logic of “demographic crisis.”  Like many crisis and panics, it is a social construct.  Inherent in this constructed crisis is ageism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism.  There are no population problems.   There are only failures of societies to address the needs of populations.  It is only through struggle that we will win the means to address these needs.


Johnson, B. (2018, February 25). ‘Stability’ not enough for Duluth jobs; aging population isn’t being replaced on pace. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/business/workplace/4408874-stability-not-enough-duluth-jobs-aging-population-isnt-being-replaced

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html

Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness

H. Bradford

4/8/18

In 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was launched under the Bush administration.  The program allows student loan borrowers to have their loans forgiven if they make 120 qualifying payments on their loans while working full time as a public servant.  This includes work for state, tribal, and federal organizations, 401c non-profit organizations, Americorps, Peace Corps, and some other qualifying non-profits. I did not learn about this program until about two years ago when I was faced with the reality of paying my student loans and spent some time looking through repayment options.  Since the program is not well promoted or advertised, many people are not aware that they may be able to have their loans forgiven. Had I known about it, I could have enrolled years ago and made some headway towards the 120 qualifying payments. This past year marked the 10 year anniversary of the program, which meant that the first cohort of enrollees in the program were qualified for loan forgiveness.  However, many found that they had not been making qualifying payments and would potentially have to start over. In all, only about 1000 of the 7,500 people enrolled in the program are expected to actually qualify for loan forgiveness this year (Lobosco, 2018). It is unknown how many, if any, have actually seen their loans forgiven, but the frustration of many borrowers has resulted in some lawsuits against loan servicers.  I have had my own frustrations and setbacks as I have tried to navigate the program. I will try to share some of the things I have learned along the way so that others can avoid the pitfalls that have thwarted so many borrowers.

Image result for public service loan forgiveness image

Direct Loans and Consolidation:


One of the criteria for loan forgiveness is that student loans must be Direct Student Loans (which confusingly are also called Direct Plus Loans and Unsubsidized/ Subsidized Stafford Loans.)   Payments on loans that are not Direct Loans (such as federal Perkins Loans and FFEL loans) do not count and so if you spend time making these payments, it will not works towards the 120 or 10 years of payments.  If you decide to consolidate these loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan, you will loose credit on any payments on the Direct Loans you had been making payments on.  Thus, if you make payments on loans that are not Direct Loans or make Direct Loan payments AND then consolidate all of the loans, and the payment clock will reset once the loans are consolidated. Therefore, aside from working at a qualifying institution, it is important to consolidate non-Direct loans into a Consolidated Direct Student Loan early in the payment process.  In general, it is best to consolidate all federal loans early in the payment process (since once they are consolidated into the Direct Consolidation Loan the 120 payments reset).  I made the mistake that some of my loans were consolidated and some were not.   This is because I had consolidated some of them years ago.   I accumulated additional loans which were not part of the consolidation.  Both of these loans were serviced by Navient with qualifying payment plans, which I made payments on for a year.  It  was my belief that some of the loans may not qualify for forgiveness after 10 years of payments.   Because of this error and to make certain all loans were forgiven, I reconsolidated the loans.  Consequently, I lost a year of payments towards my 120 qualifying payments.   Despite the loss of time, I figured it was better to start over and have everything forgiven than reach the end with only some forgiveness.  Thus, if you are entering the program, make sure that your loans are Direct Loans and that you consolidate early on if you have multiple loans!  There are some other entities that try to offer consolidation loans.  If your consolidation loan is through a bank or some other entity than the federal government, it will not qualify for PSLF.

(Originally, I wrongly wrote that only consolidated Direct Loans qualify.  All Direct loans qualify for the program- but in my case, I was unsure if my loans qualified and was making payments on consolidated and non-consolidated loans.  When I consolidated them I started over.  If you are confused on this matter, read the section on eligible loans: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service/questions)


 Qualifying Payments:

 

To qualify for student loan forgiveness, borrowers must make 120 qualifying payments.  This means that only certain payment plans meet the criteria for forgiveness. A person can qualify by making payments under a standard payment plan.  There are also several income driven plans (IDR) which include Pay as you Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay as you Earn (REPAYE), Income Based Repayment (IBR), and Income Contingent Repayment (ICR).  To qualify for IDR, I filled out a request form and submitted it with my income taxes. Generally, if a person qualifies for IDR, the payments are 10-15% of discretionary income, or income above 150% of the poverty line.  Borrowers must also demonstrate some sort of financial hardship, but simply having a high loan balance compared to annual income is sufficient to qualify. Each year, a borrower must submit new tax information and a new request form to qualify for the payment plan.  To apply for income driven repayment, you can visit StudentLoan.gov https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/ibrInstructions.action?source=15SPRRPMT


Not all payment plans are qualifying payment plans.  For instance, some borrowers were on extended or graduated payment plans.  These plans are NOT qualified for forgiveness, as borrowers found out the hard way when they tried to apply for forgiveness this year.  While these plans also lower monthly payments and are also government sponsored payment plans, they do not qualify for the program. However, the federal spending plan passed in March has made $350 million available to borrowers who made ten years of payments under these plans so that they do not have to restart the clock on repayment (Lenza, 2018).  Despite this recent provision, the funds are only available until they have been used up, so, it is best to either apply for these funds immediately if you have been on the wrong payment plan or switch over to a qualifying payment plan. Image result for public service loan forgiveness image Image from: https://blog.iontuition.com/qualifications-public-service-loan-forgiveness/

Employment Verification:

The heart of this program is employment in public service.  It is important to note that this does not have to be continuous employment or even employment at the same job.  For instance, if you make qualifying payments while doing a year of Americorps service, spend a year working at a for profit company, followed by a year of non-profit work, this would still count as two years of qualifying payments, even if the work was interrupted.  Of course, the year at a non-qualifying workplace would not count, even if payments were made on the student loans. Full time is considered an average of 30 hours a week or more, so it is possible to be a “part-time” worker in terms of hours and benefits, but still be considered full time by PSLF standards.


The program does not require individuals to submit employment verification each year in order to qualify in the end.  When I applied for income driven repayment, I checked a box stating that I worked in a non-profit. I figured this was sufficient for their tracking purposes.  It is…and…it isn’t. While a person COULD work at qualifying workplaces for the duration of the ten years, then, at the end of the 120 payments submit an employment verification form to prove this, it is better to submit this annually for a number of reasons.  1.) This program is under attack by politicians, so, officially enrolling in the program is a good way of getting grandfathered in should the program end. 2.) Your employer may not qualify- so it is better to know sooner than later. 3.) It is a way to keep track of progress towards the 120 payments and avoid any mistakes that will cost time and money by delaying forgiveness.


If you wish to submit an employer verification form, here is is.   Simply have your employer fill out the required parts, then you can mail or fax it to the Department of Education.  But, beware, submitting this form will set in motion a series of unfortunate events….


https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/public-service-employment-certification-form.pdf

Changing Loan Servicers: A Series of Unfortunate Events

While there are many good reasons to immediately submit the employment verification form, there is one major downside.  The major downside is that this will switch your loan servicer to FedLoan, which is the most unpopular and poorly rated loan government servicer.  The government has several student loan servicers including Great Lakes, Navient, Nelnet, and Fedloan. Despite the fact that they all oversee student loans for the government, only FedLoan is used for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  This means that once you submit your employment verification form, your loans will be transferred from your servicer to FedLoan. FedLoan has poor reviews for customer service, miscalculating IDR, delayed processing of payments, slow processing time for paperwork, etc.


I submitted my employment verification form in January.  In the meantime, I continued to make payments with Navient.  It took four months for the loan to finally be switched over to FedLoan.  And, when it finally switched over, I was given less than a week’s notice that my payment would be due!  Not only was my payment with FedLoan due in a week…it was for the full amount…as the income based repayment plan was not transferred with the loan.  While FedLoan had no problem transferring my banking information for automated payments from Navient along with the due date of Navient’s payment, the servicer was completely incapable of transferring my payment plan, even though I had renewed the payment plan in December.  The payment plan was not set to expire for eight months. Worse, I was expected to make a nearly immediate payment of over $1000. Yes, this was a nightmare.


To navigate this disaster, I submitted a renewal for my income driven plan on the same day that I learned my loan had been transferred.  This form can be submitted electronically on FedLoan’s site. Borrowers are also able to submit tax forms electronically on their website.  Despite my quick action, I read that FedLoan is notoriously slow and inept at calculating IDR. Some borrowers have had to wait three months to have their income driven repayment plans approved.  In the meantime, borrowers are expected to make full payments. I also called the next day and spoke with a representative, wherein I explained my situation and the surprise at the sudden high payment.  I was able to defer my loans for several months while the IDR is being processed. I actually asked to continue to make payments for the same amount that I made with Navient for this duration, but was told that these would not count as qualifying payments for PSLF.  Although I was approved for temporary forbearance, to make 100% certain that my checking account is not debited the full amount of the loan, I suspended payments for the month. This can also be done electronically on FedLoan’s website. Now, I am hoping that with this multifaceted approach, I can avoid some of the frustrations other borrowers have experienced.  My main piece of advice is to be observant and proactive.


I am still in the early stages of my relationship with FedLoan.  With time, FedLoan should provide me with a report on my payment progress towards the 120 payments.  I have not yet received the report, but I have read that some borrowers have found errors in how this was calculated.  Again, it seems like FedLoan is the shit show of loan servicers. But, I will say that the representative I spoke to was helpful and my forbearance was processed within 24 hours.  I also received notice yesterday that my IDR was processed. This means that it was processed within four days. While the new payment plan has not yet gone into effect, perhaps this is a kernel of hope that FedLoan may not be absolutely awful. Image result for fedloan

Other Information:


Currently, borrowers who do not work at work places which qualify for PSLP can still qualify for loan forgiveness.  Borrowers who make qualifying payments on their undergraduate student loans for a MERE 20 years can have their loans forgiven.  And, if you have debt from graduate school, you can see financial freedom after 25 years of qualifying payments! Hope springs eternal as there is the possibility that debt can be forgiven by retirement.  If it is not, delinquent student loan payments can be taken out of social security benefits (up to 15% of benefit). It is important to note that any student loan debt that is forgiven by the government is counted as taxable income.  It is also important to note that at this time, PSLF debt forgiveness is tax exempt (but 20 and 25 year forgiveness under extended payment plans is not). One final thing to be aware of is that marriage means that Income Driven Repayment plans are calculated with both incomes.  This changes payment amounts and may bar some people from qualifying for these plans. Thus, another piece of student loan repayment advice is to never get married.

Image result for student loan elderly

Conclusion:


Navigating Public Service Loan Forgiveness can be frustrating to say the least.  I am thankful for my education, but certainly wish that education did not require taking on such debt.  In exchange for my education, I am certainly willing to provide a service to society. Though, rather than creating debt that is escapable only through death, we should provide free public education from pre-k through Ph.d.  For those who are passionate about lifelong learning, there should also be free or low cost, varied, and plentiful continuing education programs, certificate programs, and trainings. We should all be passionate lifelong learners.  Instead, education is becoming increasingly private, expensive, and market driven- qualities that are anathema to creating a population with a zeal for expanding their human experience through learning. The present system is flawed in many ways.  At a basic level, it is bad for capitalism since it thwarts the reproduction of labor. If people cannot marry because of debt or must pay student debt into old age, there is a diminished ability to ensure the sustenance and continuation of labor. While I have no sympathy for capitalism’s continuation, the student debt system will inevitably cause crisis in capitalism as workers are increasingly burdened by loans.  PSLF is a small, relatively unknown escape hatch from student loan burden (which still requires 10 years of payments and a lot of hoops). But, for many people, it relieves them of the worst burdens of their debt as they provide various services to society. More must be done. This modest program must be defended, but beyond this, we should demand forgiveness of all crushing educational debt and quality education for all.

Related image

Image from:  https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/senate-bill-would-provide-student-loan-debt-relief-070617.html

 

Sources: (not formatted correctly…)

https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/student-loan-ranger/articles/2018-04-04/how-student-loan-borrowers-can-requalify-for-public-service-loan-forgivenesshttp:

https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/02/pf/college/public-service-student-loan-forgiveness/index.html

Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed: Reflections on Being the Easter Bunny

Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed: Reflections on Being the Easter Bunny

H. Bradford

4/3/18


This spring, I saw an interesting opportunity posted on Facebook.  The post was a call-out for anyone interested in becoming the Easter Bunny at the mall.  Despite the fact that I already have two jobs, or three if you count subbing, I posted my interest and was interviewed later that week.  The interview was pretty informal, mostly consisting of questioning why I was interested in the job and trying on a giant Easter Bunny head.  With little effort, I was hired on for a two week stint as a costumed Easter Bunny at a mall kiosk for seasonal photos.  I thought the whole thing seemed silly and certainly would provide the raw materials for a good story.


The Costume:

The costume itself was hot and claustrophobic.  When I first tried the whole thing on, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sense of being trapped.  The trapped feeling came from the general heaviness and stuffiness of the head, which provided a dim and limited view of the world.  The head does not allow for adequate peripheral vision or the ability to look down.  The rest of the body is less challenging.  It consisted of oversized rabbit feet, baggy fur pants, a velcro velvety blue jacket, and furry gloves.  One thing that I appreciated about the costume was that the bunny looked intellectual, with round glasses and gold trimmed velvet clothes.   This was not a rowdy Peter Rabbit, but perhaps his pedantic uncle who is allergic to carrots (unless they are boiled) and whose favorite painting is Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.

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(My first time wearing the costume)

In any event, the costume could become hot.  Thankfully, there was a fan aimed at the bunny.  The only downside was that sometimes the fan upset children or messed up their hair, so it was turned away or tilted up, resulting in a sweltering rabbit.  On the upside, I tried to think what skills wearing the suit might translate to.  Paul (a fellow rabbit) said that maybe I would be more comfortable in a gas mask, since those are also claustrophobic.  I thought perhaps I would do better underwater (with a lessened sense of the space around me or a sense of confinement in a wetsuit or scuba/snorkel mask).  Yes, I want to believe that being the bunny better prepares me for revolution, apocalypse, or underwater adventures.


 

Gender:

The Easter Bunny was usually gendered as male by parents and children.  The bunny doesn’t have any specific gender markers, but might be viewed as male due to the blue velvet vest and jacket.  In a Twitter Poll, 80% of respondents believed the Easter Bunny to be male.  Though, velvetty anything seems pretty gender ambiguous in my opinion.  Only Paul suggested that the bunny could use they, them pronouns.  Otherwise, parents almost universally used masculine pronouns with the rabbit.  A few people inquired about the gender of the person inside of the costume.  For instance, a girl asked me if I was a girl bunny or a boy bunny.  An older woman asked one of the cashier/photography workers if the person inside was male or female.  I don’t expect that most customers would have the knowledge or experiences to envision the bunny outside of the binary of male or female.  I myself tended to gender the bunny as male, hence my Peter Rabbit’s uncle story.  I often wondered how parents felt about setting their child on the lap of the Easter Bunny.  Did the parents envision the person inside as male?  If so, how did this make them feel?  Male gender and sexuality is always viewed as more potentially threatening to children.  This is because we are socialized to view women as more “naturally” disposed for caretaking, more nurturing, and more invested in children.  Statistically, men are more likely to be perpetrators of child sexual abuse, though females make up 14% of the abusers of male children and 6% of female children.  With this in mind, I wondered how parents might react differently based upon their perceptions of the gender of the person in the costume.  As far as I could tell, most parents were extremely comfortable putting their child into the lap or company of a stranger in a rabbit costume.  This leads me to my next point…


Consent:

I was not able to speak as the Easter Bunny.  This made negotiating consent difficult.  As I mentioned, parents were pretty comfortable with placing their child in the temporary care of the Easter Bunny.  However, many children were not at all comfortable meeting the bunny.  It seemed that children over the age of two and under the age of five were often quite terrified of the bunny.  From a distance, they seemed excited.  As they grew nearer, the magnitude of meeting the bunny struck them- as well as the general weirdness of having to sit on this character’s lap or beside them.  This resulted in reactions ranging from shyness to terror.  Parents addressed this a number of ways.  A common tactic was to bribe the children.  Children were promised that they could ride the train, have candy, go to Build a Bear, or get a toy if they endured a photo with the bunny.  Parents also assured their children that the bunny was safe and nice.  This was done by approaching the bunny, touching its paw, high fives, sitting next to the bunny with the child in arms, and other tactics to increase the child’s exposure to the bunny and demonstrate that it was no threat at all.  Some parents threatened their kids, telling them there would be no candy or that they would go straight home.  A final tactic was to simply place the child on the bunny’s lap or on the bench, then run, hoping that the photographer would grab a few shots before the child inevitably ran away.


Parents played an important role in mediating the child’s consent.  However, most parents wanted a photo for their own collection of memories or to send to relatives.  They had a vested interest in forcing their child to endure a photo.  This put me in an awkward position.  When one parent placed a child on my lap, the child immediately thrust themselves off my legs and flopped onto the floor.  This resulted in more crying.  Since I did not want more children to fall over, I would hold them securely on my lap- a violation of their consent.  Parents encouraged this, even telling me to hold on tight to their child.  When I finally released one child, the crying boy wailed that he would never return to the Easter Bunny again.  I felt bad that many kids did not consent to being photographed with the bunny.  While I think that with time and patience, many frightened children would warm up to the bunny, the length of the line or impatience of the parents did not allow for this to happen in some cases.  In other cases, children naturally became more comfortable with the giant rabbit and ended up having a positive experience.  Thus, I can conclude that I think it is alright for parents to challenge their children to overcome their fears in a patient and supportive manner.  But, I do think it sends the wrong message for parents to threaten or force the encounter.


As for my own strategies for trying to make children comfortable, I would sometimes grab an egg for the children to hold.  This seemed to distract them from the frightening, giant rabbit.   I would also try to make the children comfortable with high fives and thumbs ups.  If kids rushed towards me (without showing fear) I might gesture for a hug.  I didn’t want to be a cold Easter Bunny with walls of boundaries, but I also didn’t want to make children uncomfortable.  I found that this was a little challenging to balance, as I naturally am more reserved when it comes to showing warmth and affection.


 

Working with Kids:

While I work with children at Safe Haven Shelter, I enjoyed my interactions as the Easter Bunny far more.  Within the context of the shelter, I am just me.  If a child is placed in my care, it is usually in the office, where there are computers, office supplies, and phone calls.  Thus, I always feel pretty stressed out about childcare at the shelter because 1.) I have nothing to entertain them with.  2.) I am in a room full of expensive or breakable things- i.e. computers.  3.) I often don’t know how long the encounter will last.  4.) I may have other work to attend to.  5.) I am not actually all that fun or interesting to children.  As the Easter Bunny, I was immediately fun and likeable.  Afterall, I am the one who brings candy and hides eggs.  On several occasions, I was able to ride on the mall train which was a grand entry and an opportunity for sort-of dancing.  While I could not speak, I could wave, gesture, high five, and pretend to hop.  In all, it was great to NOT be boring old Heather, who has nothing to offer children.  Really, being the Easter Bunny is the closest I will ever be to being a celebrity or God. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting and child

(a photo of a photo- of my friend Jenny’s niece)

 

Labor:

From a Marxist perspective, all workers sell their labor power in exchange for a wage.  Labor power is not only labor (i.e. selling shoes, making shirts, paving roads, or other examples of the act of working).  It is time, work, along with the whole human being.  In short, every worker sells their work and time, but also their personality, body, and the sustenance the person (physical health, mental health, caloric use, bodily wear and tear, etc.).  My temporary gig as the rabbit was a “hobby” job or one that I did more on a whim than for my actual survival.  Therefore, I didn’t feel particularly exploited.  At the same time, I think it would be very hard to be the bunny all year long or as a professional job.  There are some people (such as Disneyland workers) who do not have the luxury of a two week gig.  Thus, I think it is useful to illustrate the way in which this form of work is exploitive (as all work is).


When a worker sells their labor power, they are selling themselves.  In the bunny example, the worker is invisible, hidden inside a stuffy, hot suit.  The sweat of the worker, the inability to scratch an itchy nose, immediately use the toilet, easily ingest water, move hair that has flopped into the face, to speak, to see beyond the periphery of the eye holes, etc. are all ways in which the body is subjugated in the sale of labor.  Playing the character is how the personality of the worker is subjected in the interest of the emotional labor of entertaining children.   The way in which work subjugates the body and personality of a worker is pretty obvious inside the confines of a costume.  Even other workers tended to ignore the bunny, sometimes neglecting to turn on or move of the fan.  The bunny can’t easily communicate needs.  Another hardship as the rabbit was a lack of a sense of time.  There was no nearby clock, so time could move quickly or slowly depending upon how many customers were visiting.  At the same time, the bunny was paid better than other workers.  Workers who were not the bunny were pretty adamant that they did not want to end up in the costume.  I believe that at some level they realized that the bunny produced more “value” in terms of labor output (i.e. had a harder job but also contributed more to overall profits).


But, a person does not have to be in a bunny suit to realize the bodily oppression of labor.  A waitress who has to smile and look pretty for more tips, a social worker whose stress or compassion is a strain on their mental health, and a janitor whose heavy routine deteriorates physical health are all examples of how labor is more than just our work and time, but our whole being.

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(A little house of capitalist horrors)

Conclusion:

I would say that the job was certainly novel.  Towards the end, I was happy that the season was over since my coworkers seemed worn out and the hours in addition to my regular work hours was making me weary and eager for free time.  It was a fun side job and more insightful than one might imagine.  While hidden in my costume, I had plenty to think about in terms of gender, consent, and labor itself.  There were fun moments.  I liked to make children happy.  I liked to play a character.  I liked the opportunity to be something other than the more serious and quiet version of myself that I sometimes am as an activist and worker at my other jobs.  I enjoyed eating at Noodles and Company at the mall and visiting the mall at all!  It was something different from my normal routine.  I was also happy to have stories to share with my friends, coworkers, and family.  I even had a several people visit me as the bunny.  If the opportunity arises, I may be the bunny again next year.  Being the Easter bunny made me feel more inclined to celebrate Easter.  I visited my family and even purchased myself an Easter basket full of candy I don’t need.  But, even the Easter bunny needs a little treat!   Anyway, we’ll see what next Easter brings.  And who knows, maybe I will be one of Santa’s helpers…

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https://www.quora.com/Is-the-Easter-bunny-male-or-female

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