Tyler McFadden hoped a college degree would help her land a well-paying career in politics, but the 31-year-old didn’t expect it would come with hefty debt, poor credit, job instability, and anxiety, she says.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from George Washington University in 2014, McFadden became a bartender. With limited income, she defaulted, or failed to pay her loans, which negatively impacted her credit score. She went back to school and graduated with a master’s degree in political management in 2017 — hoping a higher-level degree would earn her more income. The degree, along with networking, helped her get jobs in her field, but it put her deeper in debt, she recalls.

While sharing expenses with her husband helps, McFadden is also the sole caregiver for her mom. Although inflation has eased a bit, she worries she still won’t be able to pay back the $125,000 she owes.

“My expenses have increased. My property taxes have gone up. The cost of living is so much higher. They say inflation is better, but most people don’t feel it,” McFadden says. “I’m still relying on credit cards, and I don’t know how to afford the thousands of dollars in loans after repayment. [My husband and I] are both in deferment waiting to be approved.”

Tyler McFadden says she's wrestling with student loan debt as well as inflation and family responsibilities. (Courtesy of Tyler McFadden)

McFadden is one of thousands of Black Americans grappling with mounting expenses brought on by inflation and the end of pandemic relief such as the pause on student loan payments, economic impact (or stimulus) payments, and expanded unemployment benefits. They question whether President Joe Biden has done enough to support Black workers. Despite concerns over job security and wages, economists argue conditions for Black folks have improved under the Biden administration.

Last year, the Black unemployment rate was at historically low levels and wages for Black people increased, said Algernon Austin, director of race and economic justice at the Center for Economic Policy and Research. Since then, the rate has continued to outpace the national average. The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a national unemployment rate at 3.9%, while the Black unemployment rate stood at 5.6%, the highest among all races, with the unemployment rate for Black men steadily rising.

Even though the black unemployment rate is low, it traditionally is much more volatile than the white unemployment rate, said Michael Neal, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Because of this, Neal says, a better metric of the economy for Black folks is earnings rather than employment. Last year, the average median weekly wage for full-time Black workers was just 84% of the wages earned by full-time white workers.

Neal believes the upcoming election and the concerted effort to reverse diversity measures across the board may have a tangible impact on the Black employment rate, particularly for the professional class. “We could soon have an employment philosophy that’s very different from what was implemented over the last four years,” he says.

Read More: Has Biden Kept His Campaign Promises to Black Americans? The Answer Is Complicated.

Despite the unemployment rate, Austin referenced other positives under the current administration, which included the new SAVE program, an income-driven repayment plan that lowers the monthly payments to eligible borrowers. At least 3.7 million Americans have received debt relief through various efforts, including the SAVE plan.

He also mentioned the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which created hundreds of manufacturing jobs and invested in rebuilding aging roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects, especially for low-income Black communities.

Rodericka Applewhaite, a spokesperson for the White House, told Worldacad that Biden will continue to build on these gains this year.

“Bidenomics is not an agenda that just so happens to benefit Black Americans, the Biden-Harris Administration is deliberately tackling decades of failed trickle-down economics that left them behind by design,” she wrote in a statement. “There’s still plenty to do to keep closing the gaps that persist, but the facts are clear: President Biden’s leadership has been more consequential for the Black community than any other president before him.”

We spoke to several people about how they are navigating student loans, prescription drug prices and jobs in this current economic climate. Here’s what they told us.

Buried in student loan debt

Similar to McFadden, 48-year-old TaLynn Kel struggled to pay back her student loans after graduating from Yale University in 1997 with an English degree. She bounced from job to job to pay for her housing and food costs, but not enough to pay her loans. So, she temporarily paused, or deferred, her payments.

Thirteen years later, McFadden lost her father to cancer, and her “crap job” at the time temporarily laid her off. She applied for unemployment benefits, but it wasn’t enough. She went back to school and applied for more loans to pay for her graduate program. She received a Master of Public Health degree from Georgia State University in 2012.

Kel continued the job search, hoping to find something in her field. During the process, she got a blood clot from the oral contraception pills she had been taking and had experienced a pulmonary embolism, a blockage in the blood vessels that sends blood to your lungs. She signed on for a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company and won. With the settlement, she paid off her $50,000 student loan debt from undergrad.

TaLynn Kel says she doesn't think any of the current presidential candidates are “progressive enough.” Courtesy of TaLynn Kel)

Even though she is married now and financially better off, she also worries about the remaining $33,000 in student loan debt, especially since she has a new 30-year home mortgage. Instead of saving up for a new car to replace her 20-year-old Honda, she has been saving up for student loan payments.

“I work as a contractor, I’m married and we share expenses. [Although] it makes it easier for me to start thinking about working on paying down that debt, it still is something that I think about constantly in the back of my head,” Kel says. “I would love to get rid of it, but I’m not looking to have another near-death experience to try and make that happen.”

Kel told Worldacad she wished Biden’s $450 student loan forgiveness program would have moved forward, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the proposal last summer. Last week, 11 Republican-led states filed a federal lawsuit to nix Biden’s SAVE plan. Ever since, his administration has been finding new avenues to grant relief. The administration recently canceled debt for 78,000 public service workers through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Kel says she doesn’t think Biden, or any other candidate on the presidential ticket, are “progressive enough.”

“It’s fascinating how everything is positioned as though it’s in defense of our lives, our freedoms, our rights, our well-being, and yet the basic thing that people need is to be out of debt, to have housing, to have clean water and food,” Kel says. “With the election of Trump, we saw that they don’t have to change anything. Now, they’re full throttle, going into we can do whatever we want. You can’t stop us, you can’t vote us out because we only give you these two people to choose from and both of them are terrible.”

Congress is partially to blame for the failure of some of Biden’s proposals. In addition to the student loan forgiveness program, Congress repealed a $4 billion debt relief program for socially disadvantaged farmers, including Black farmers, and blocked a permanent expansion of the child tax credit.

“[We] have to recognize that there’s significant opposition doing everything they can to block President Joe Biden’s initiatives,” Austin told us. “He’s not the king. Just because he wants to do it doesn’t mean that he has the political power to actually do it.”

For Kat Calvin, she knew her theater degree from Mount Holyoke College in 2005 wouldn’t help pay the bills. She worked as a first-grade teacher in rural Louisiana, and, like many others, deferred her loan payments. She, too, went back to college and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2010.

After graduating from law school, she began paying on her $250,000 debt through the federal income-based repayment program. Since then, she’s started her own nonprofit and startup to pay back her loans. As a single person living in Los Angeles, Calvin sacrificed saving money for a home and car to pay down her debt. Even with a good salary, Calvin says she still is stretched thin.

“Like a lot of Black women, I have to help support my family, and you don’t get tax credits for other people you’re supporting if they’re not your kids, but this is why Black women tend to have so much less net worth,” she says. “We don’t have people to help us pay for college, and then we end up having to help our family, but we don't get any credit for that.”

Kat Calvin will be eligible for the public service student loan forgiveness program in a few years, but she worries about others facing mountains of debt. (Courtesy of Kat Calvin)

Last year, Calvin published a book, American Identity in Crisis: Notes from an Accidental Activist, and used her advance to pay off some of her private loans. She’s also enrolled in school again, which will allow her to defer her loans once again. Since she’s worked in the nonprofit sector for over 10 years, and made consistent monthly payments on her loans, she will be eligible for the public service student loan forgiveness program in a few more years.

Although Calvin is one step closer to her debt being wiped clean, she worries about Black folks who are low-income or unhoused who have accumulated mountains of debt.

“The thing that’s scary is I spend a lot of time wondering how people are getting by because gas, services, food, and everything is so expensive. When these student loan payments kick in, most people can’t pay them right now.”

The promise of green jobs

Shortly before Dominic Kruger turned 18, he started his first job with a petrochemical company in Louisiana. The Gulf coast of his home state is home to the largest concentration of petrochemical plants in North America — and as he puts it, working for these companies is “the only way in Louisiana to survive — unless you want to work at McDonald's.”

“That’s all we got for Black men,” he says.

But petrochemical jobs are grueling on the environment and the workers.

Across the country, the fossil fuel industry supports 11 million jobs, or 6% of the U.S. workforce; however, Black employment has drastically declined over the past four decades. The industry is less than 6% Black.Over the past 25 years, industry emissions have doubled, making the sector the third-most greenhouse gas-emitting globally. By raw numbers, a 2017 report found the oil and gas industry has more severe injuries than any other industry, and nearly three-fourths of those injuries are due to equipment failures, not human error.

Dominic Kruger has moved from the petrochemical industry to the green construction field, but says the government should enact more policies to expand the field to Black workers. (Courtesy of Dominic Kruger)

Before Kruger started his last fossil fuel job, two people died working the position he was hired for. It would later alter his life, too: In December 2020, half of his face was burned off on the job.

He’d spend much of the following year healing from reconstructive surgery and in long therapy sessions, which he still attends today. The accident causes him to experience “delusions, nightmares, all kinds of stuff — suicidal thoughts.” Throughout the recovery process, his marriage ended, and he lost his housing and the ability to live with his son.

Because of stories like these, and the industry’s harmful climate impacts, the Biden administration has made it a goal to create 10 million safer, “good-paying union jobs” in clean energy and climate resilience by 2030. The employment shift depends on the waning of the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Fossil fuel jobs have only by only 7% since 2021.

Over the past year, Kruger has been able to slowly turn his life around by entering the green construction industry. But that has little to do with government initiatives, he thinks.

“The federal government says they’re for this and for that — for creating safer jobs for us — but I don't see it here.”

Without targeted policies, the increase in green jobs does not necessarily favor Black workers, who are significantly underemployed in green jobs. Tens of thousands of jobs remain unfilled. Although, according to recent White House data, roughly two-thirds of new clean energy jobs produced in 2023 were in communities of color — including nearly 60,000 jobs located in Black communities.

But in Louisiana, Kruger said, support for Black workers has come from community organizations, like his new employer, the Louisiana Just Recovery Network, an organization that promotes climate justice through building infrastructure. With LJRN, he has helped families implement clean energy practices, like solar, and fortify their homes against climate threats like extreme heat and hurricanes.

It makes life easier, he says, “to know that [he] can help people and provide valuable infrastructure” without harming himself or the environment. “I finally feel stable.”

Co-pays and drug prices adding up

CJ Walker was 39 years old when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2019. Her symptoms had been different than typical. She had never been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, either. Her cholesterol and blood pressure had always been low, always normal.

But there was a rich family history of the disease. “It runs rampant on both sides,” Walker says.

It wasn’t until she went to an endocrinologist that she learned she had been misdiagnosed. What she had was actually a slow form of Type 1, and doctors caught it quick enough that she didn’t have to start insulin. Because of the health insurance provided by her husband’s job, she’s able to manage the financial burden of her care and medications.

Others she’s met — and now advocates for — are less fortunate.

Sometimes people approach her, confessing that they don’t have insurance. She once met a man who had drained his savings account. His insulin costs about $1,000 a month.

“Drug pricing has been a very sensitive issue for many of us,” says Walker, who worries about how long her insurance will protect her. What if her plan or co-pay changes, she wonders. “Anything can happen in the next minute, the next hour, the next year.”

CJ Walker has become an advocate for people living with diabetes. She says lawmakers need to do more to help those struggling with insulin costs. (Courtesy of CJ Walker)

She remembers the family member with type 2 diabetes who was admitted to the hospital for complications but was unable to receive insulin they needed because their insurance didn’t cover it. The doctor prescribed a less effective alternative.

Another family member says the only way they can sustain their long-term dialysis treatment is because veteran medical services cover it. Otherwise, he says, his life would’ve been shorter.

She’s disheartened by members of Congress who make false remarks about people with diabetes needing to simply diet as they debate lowering drug prices. And although there have been major strides during the Biden administration, she says it’s not enough.

In January, the Inflation Reduction Act placed a $35 monthly cap on the out-of-pocket cost of insulin for seniors enrolled in Medicare, but no such cap exists for those with private insurance or those with no coverage. Since the move by the administration, one drug manufacturer has followed suit.

“It still neglects people who don’t fall within the Medicare guidelines. People like me,” she says. “You’re also not reaching the uninsured.”

She says it’s a myth that diabetes patients have what they need. Without her coverage, she says, she wouldn’t be able to raise her three kids.

Her advocacy for people living with diabetes includes attending town halls, writing articles to raise awareness, and speaking on panels.

Are federal housing goals falling short?

A fire that sent Ericka Bowman’s childhood apartment up in flames ended up changing her life for the better.

Even as a child, she learned that maintaining housing could quickly become impossible for families that looked like hers. She grew up in project-style subsidized housing in San Angelo, Texas, but coincidentally, that fire allowed her mother to receive a Section-8 voucher, which gave them more of a say in where they could lay their head.

Bowman, now the community outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, says her family was most excited about having more choices. They now had the opportunity to find a “community of opportunity,” paving “a different route for [her] from the ones that [she] knew and left behind.”

Ericka Bowman says increased money for HUD typically doesn't get to communities that need it the most. (Courtesy of Ericka Bowman)

Don’t get it wrong, though, she says: The housing options were still “all shitholes pretty much,” just in a more-resourced community.

Although it worked for her, she now knows she was a rare case and understands the disconnect between federal housing goals and on-the-ground experiences.

While the Biden administration has advocated for a multibillion-dollar increase in funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, money doesn’t typically trickle down to the communities that need it most, she says.

“There’s systemic racism with how housing money is allocated to our community, and there is a lack of intentional decisions being made to ensure the money goes where it is needed,” Bowman says.

Roughly 25% of families in subsidized housing are Black, despite Black folks making up less than 15% of the population. Increasing the voucher program has been one of the Biden administration’s largest pushes to ensure struggling Black families have a roof over their heads.

As federal subsidies for low-income housing have declined by 20% since 2010, local housing agencies have increasingly turned to vouchers. Voucher programs limit government costs by entrusting private property landlords with meeting the day-to-day needs of tenants, including repairs and maintenance. The government still subsidizes the rent that these low-income tenants pay.

The shift has enlarged the country’s housing gap: Nationwide, there are 11 million households that fall below the federal poverty line and thus qualify for subsidized housing, but there are only 4 million such properties.

A family issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding their own housing unit, though the property owner must agree to rent under the program. In various cities — including Los Angeles, where half of all Black residents live in subsidized housing — studies have shown that as many as 80% of landlords don’t accept these vouchers.

Bowman saw this reality earlier this year in a case mimicking her childhood: Jamie, a single mother of three stuck in mold and roach-infested project-style housing. Over the past two school years, Jamie’s 8-year-old missed six weeks of school due to asthma flare-ups, very likely triggered by the mold.

With the help of Bowman and other advocates, Jamie was able to secure a voucher to theoretically move to a healthier, better-maintained private apartment complex within 90 days. Just one catch: they rarely exist for low-income people.

“The houses that did accept vouchers were in really horrible communities or in very bad condition,” Bowman relays. “Most weren’t willing to accept the vouchers at all.

“There was a stream of hope, then all of a sudden, she ended up having to settle in an apartment that was just as bad.”

Worldacad National Politics Reporter Brandon Tensley contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect Kat Calvin’s student loan debt. An earlier version miscalculated the amount.

Aallyah Wright is Worldacad's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @AdamLMahoney

Margo Snipe is a health reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @margoasnipe