The United States of Debt: A Slate Academy

The United States of Debt

How did debt get so bad in the United States?
And what can we do about it?

What’s it like to empty out your 401(k) to help a family member? How does a first-generation college student navigate student loans at a for-profit school? What should a 64-year-old man with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills do about retirement?

Slate has been following the stories of seven diverse people who have been affected by four kinds of debt: student loans, medical debt, credit card debt, and housing debt.

The United States of Debt takes an in-depth look at the reality of owing money in America: how we get into debt, and how we can get out.

It's a boldly reported series of conversations with leading experts and Americans all over the country, hosted by Slate’s personal finance columnist Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

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This Slate Academy includes:
  • Six in-depth podcasts, each featuring Olen in conversation with academics, authors, and experts, along with Americans from all over the country
  • Illuminating essays, articles, interactives, and book excerpts to help get more out of what you’re listening to
  • A private Facebook group for thoughtful conversation with your host and fellow students
  • Transcripts of each full episode
Host Helaine Olen


In this series, Slate columnist Helaine Olen will take an in-depth look at the realities of debt in America and explore why debt has become a shadow in so many lives—no matter how well things are going in the greater economy. Listen to this introductory episode to find out more.

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How much debt do we have in America, and what historical and cultural factors have influenced the recent rise of it? Is there a way that debt can help us get ahead? And why do we judge those who owe money? Helaine takes a look into the past to figure out why there’s been an explosion in borrowed money.

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In episode 2, Helaine looks at America’s love affair with plastic. Why do so many of us run up more charges than we can easily pay off? What factors have allowed credit card companies to lend us money so indiscriminately, and could a 1978 Supreme Court decision have something to do with it? How has racial inequality played a role in ensuring that some minorities hold more credit card debt than whites? And are we to fully blame for our credit card bills?

Also tune in to hear Helaine's advice on how to get out of credit card debt — including her thoughts on get-out-of-debt organizations, financial coaches, and bankruptcy.

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Today, Americans owe about $1.3 trillion in student loans. But how does the impact of those student loans affect our economy? In episode 3, Helaine takes on America’s student loan crisis. Just how many of us are really burdened by the cost of pursuing a higher education, and is there a way out? Are student loans more common now, and why? Why are student loans such a mess in the United States, compared to other countries? And what do for-profit schools have to do with all of this?

Plus — what do you do if you’re already suffocating under the pressure of your student loans?

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Your health may be your most valuable asset, but for many Americans, it comes at a huge cost. Medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States. In episode 4, host Helaine Olen dives into the pile of bills surrounding America’s healthcare system. Why is going to the doctor such an expensive proposition for so many people? Has the Affordable Care Act changed any of that? And is there a realistic way to avoid surprise medical bills?

Lastly - learn why even health insurance won’t keep you from going into medical bankruptcy.

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In the wake of the housing crash and foreclosure crisis, millions of Americans lost their homes. Today, many people are still wrestling with the fallout of the crisis, with their credit all but destroyed. In Episode 5, Helaine explores the depth of America’s housing crisis. Why did so many people lose their homes to foreclosure? Who was responsible for the crisis anyway—individual home owners or bigger institutions? And if the crisis is still happening, why do we hear so little about it?

Also—why were blacks and other minorities hit worse than others?

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Over the five episodes of our series, we’ve discussed why it’s so hard for Americans to escape debt. In the sixth and last episode, host Helaine Olen explains where we go from here.

How could the Trump administration potentially affect people struggling with student loans, credit card debt, medical bills, and underwater mortgages? And what should we do now?

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Meet the People of the United States of Debt

Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Yannerys
Yannerys, 26, is from Brooklyn, New York. She is a single mother to an 8-year-old daughter. She currently works at a nonprofit organization where she helps low-income New Yorkers receive social services. She is a first-generation college student with about $30,000 in debt from student loans and credit card debt.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Leigh
Leigh, 64, is a computer consultant from New Jersey. He has about $80,000 in debt from medical debt, credit card debt, and student loans.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Louis
Louis, 50, is an academic on tenure track. At one point, he held over $90,000 in credit card debt and student loans. He has a teenage daughter and lives in New Jersey.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Brian
Brian, 37, is a geophysicist who lives in Hawaii with his wife and two children. In 2008, his house on Oahu lost more than half of its value overnight. Brian also has student loans from his undergraduate degree.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Rosette
Rosette, 23, is from Long Island, New York. She has $120,000 in student loan debt from her undergraduate degree at Bard College and her master’s from Harvard University. She teaches eighth grade English at an urban public school in Massachusetts.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Kirk
Kirk, 48, lives in a condo in Miami with his husband of eight years. Together, they have almost half a million dollars in mortgage debt, credit card debt, student loans, and car loans.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Ami
Ami, 29, has $30,000 in debt from attending the Illinois Institute of Art. Her mother, who is a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, also took out about $78,000 in loans for her education. Ami lives near Chicago with her boyfriend, 5-year-old daughter, and two dogs. Ami and her boyfriend have refrained from getting married for fear that his wages will be garnished.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Cherie
Cherie, 62, bought a house in San Antonio in 2007. Six years later, after several problems, she lost her home to foreclosure. Now, retired and living in Idaho, she fears she’ll never own a house again.
Meet the People of the United States of Debt: Janet
Janet, 52, bought a house with her husband in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 2003. But years later, he became disabled due to medical issues, and she became the sole breadwinner of the family. They lost their home to foreclosure in 2014. The couple and their two children now live with her mother-in-law.

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