Paul Ryan really does not like to help students. ThinkProgress reported that at a recent town hall meeting in Wisconsin, Ryan was asked why he was so vehemently against the Pell Grant program. Despite the fact Pell Grants help millions of struggling students stay in school each year, Ryan replied Pell Grants were simply “unsustainable.” He did, however, offer an alternative: Work three jobs to pay off student loans.
For Ryan to attack a program that helps those most in need, in this case struggling college students, is nothing new. The idea of eliminating Pell Grants altogether has been echoed by many other Tea Party darlings. What makes Ryan’s statements noteworthy is the way he perfectly articulates the contempt sweeping through Congress toward the lower and middle classes.
The issue at stake here isn’t really the affordability of Pell Grants. The true question is the government’s responsibility to its citizens, and what it must do to fulfill those obligations. This is the true ideological divide underlining every debate in Congress, from social security to defense spending.
Individuals like Ryan seem to believe government should exist almost only symbolically. He wants a small, purposeless but financially soluble entity. A government like this would do little more than cut men like Ryan a check every month.
However, there is another way of looking at government. The ideal held by millions of Americans since its foundation is that government should ensure every single citizen has a fair chance at a good life. This equality is simple, but not automatic. Some citizens need to work from a young age and others are born into model school districts. It is the government’s job to step in and ensure those who are born disadvantaged still have a fair chance to be successful in life. The best way to go about this is by ensuring everyone who is willing to get a good education is able. Today, that means a college degree.
This simple idea of equality is the foundation of democracy. It is the economic equality Occupy protestors around the nation are clamoring for. And it is the foundation of capitalism. In true capitalism, everyone has the ability to compete fairly. Those best suited for specific endeavors, whether it is medicine or computer engineering, naturally specialize in that and society as a whole benefits. That competition cannot be achieved if some individuals don’t have a chance to gain necessary knowledge and skills.
If education is the best path toward equality, affordable higher education is the cornerstone of any true democracy. At a time when tuition costs are becoming prohibitively more expensive, the federal government has to assist with programs such as the Pell Grants and direct federal student loans. President Barack Obama has already started down this path, first and foremost by increasing the maximum a student can receive from Pell Grants to $5,500. He is also enacting new rules toward student loans. Starting next year, borrowers will be able to cap their monthly loan payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income, decreased from 15 percent. After 20 years, rather than the current 25, the loan will be forgiven.
These actions by the president are based on the belief that a good education is a right, not a privilege for good times or a luxury for the few.
When Ryan offers his personal experience as one to be emulated by college students today, he shows his true contempt for struggling Americans and a dangerous detachment from reality. The idea that students and recent graduates, struggling to find even one job in this stagnant economy, should instead find three is laughable.
Ryan doesn’t really care about how hard it is for us to pay for college. For him, education isn’t a vital right for a true democracy and vibrant capitalistic economy. For Ryan and his cronies in Washington D.C., education is a luxury, like an iPod or retirement plan. They believe only the privileged few, such as the sons of U.S. Congressmen, should have access to it.