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Sen. Cory Booker Answers Questions About Student Debt Crisis

NOEL KING, HOST:

If you got to sit down with one of the presidential candidates, what would you ask? NPR is bringing together undecided voters and candidates to go Off Script. This weekend, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker hung out with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro and voters Shanell Dunns and Diana Candelejo. They met at Vonda's Kitchen, which is a soul food diner in Newark. Booker was mayor there for more than seven years, and he still calls Newark home. Candelejo is an economist with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, and she wanted to know about the student debt crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DIANA CANDELEJO: How do you intend to address the student debt crisis not only for me but for future generations?

CORY BOOKER: So this is a culture-changing impact that we now have a nation that sees hundreds of billions of dollars worth of debts for a generation who are delaying life choices, everything from marriage to buying homes, because of crushing student debt. And you have people graduating with tens of thousands, sometimes well over $100,000 worth of debt.

SHANELL DUNNS: I'm there.

CANDELEJO: Yeah, I always say I own a house - New Jersey prices - that I never walked into.

DUNNS: Right.

BOOKER: Yes.

ARI SHAPIRO: Just the cost of your debt is the cost of a house.

DUNNS: Just the cost of...

CANDELEJO: That's how bad it is.

BOOKER: So we need to start right away by something that I - this is a little bit out of the box, but we think that every child in America should have a child savings account created for them. And my plan is called Baby Bonds. And what you do is for the lowest-income kids, they could build upwards of $50,000 by an interest-bearing account. But one of the things people can do with that money is to help to afford college. But the next thing we have to do is bring down the cost of college, and that's something that we're going to get done. But that doesn't help folks with debt right now.

CANDELEJO: Right.

BOOKER: And so we're going to do a number of things. No. 1, I believe in debt forgiveness for people who are in public service professions. So whether you're a public school teacher or you take your law degree and you want to be a public defender, we should have an aggressive loan forgiveness for those folks. I think another thing that we should do is through interest rates, which right now you can't change your interest rate. You can refinance a car loan or a mortgage, but you can't refinance. I don't know if you want to share with us - what's your interest rates now on your loans?

CANDELEJO: It's about 6.7%.

BOOKER: Which is kind of outrageous at a time that we see interest rates have fallen so low. The people who are making profits off of your federal loan right now - i.e., the federal government - actually makes billions of dollars of profits off the backs of millennials and folks who are working like you. I will change that.

SHAPIRO: Diana, you're an economist. When you hear this talk of Baby Bonds and the different financial machinations that could make college accessible, does it seem plausible to you?

CANDELEJO: I hear you on the debt forgiveness, and that sounds great. But how would you fund that? Sustainability wise, how are you looking, you know, to fund that?

BOOKER: Right. And that's one of the reasons why differentiating myself from other candidates who might want to say free college, universal debt forgiveness - that does have a big price tag. But my program, we've already shown that we can pay for, No. 1, by reversing a lot of these costly Trump tax cuts, which have blown, as you know, about a trillion-dollar hole in our deficit, which would give us a lot of those resources. So my program would not only be affordable by our pay force, as they call them, but it also would be something, by liberating you from that debt, it's going to stimulate the economy and overall growth as well.

SHAPIRO: Is that persuasive to you, Diana?

CANDELEJO: So you know, I come back with this great graduate degree from the London School of Economics. And to be honest, I applied everywhere. But I also did a social experiment where I changed my name, and I changed my address.

SHAPIRO: You mean you changed your name to sound less Latina?

CANDELEJO: Yes, correct. Candelejo wasn't doing it for me. And I start getting callbacks. And so...

SHAPIRO: Wow. When you changed your name on your resume, more people called you back.

CANDELEJO: And my address, exactly. And so I also find it interesting that, you know, we have to do more to keep employers accountable to also be ready to hire and willing to hire the talent that is actually educated, qualified and could meet their, you know, demand. And so how do you intend to also hold the employers accountable, you know, to hire the community?

BOOKER: No, I love that. And there are a lot of problems with employers, and this is why we need to have open conversations about discrimination in our country. The majority of states in America, you can be denied a job or fired from a job just because you're gay with no legal recourse whatsoever. And so these are issues that I take very seriously because no matter what job I have, I'm one of the people that calls this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "BRANCHES BREAK")

KING: That was New Jersey Senator Cory Booker with Ari Shapiro. And you can watch more of his conversation with Shanell and Diana. They talked about debt, criminal justice and Booker's relationship with actress Rosario Dawson. The videos are at npr.org/offscript. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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