It’s a rare feat to score a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list with your first book—and even rarer to have your finger on the pulse of a national moment with your second. Michael Arceneaux, author, 2018 Root 100 honoree and occasional contributor to The Root has managed to do both; following the success of 2018's I Can’t Date Jesus, the writer’s sophomore effort, a book of essays titled I Don’t Want to Die Poor debuts today, April 7—and remarkably, it captures the economic stress of our current moment with prescient precision. As the world—and the United States, in particular—are seemingly plunging into an inevitable depression during an already potentially pivotal election year, the issue of eradicating student debt has become even more urgent in the face of COVID-19. It’s a struggle Arceneaux knows intimately.
“For a lot of people my age, we were finally beginning to feel as if we had some semblance of security. It’s come much later in life through no real fault of our own, but here we are again: another disaster not of our making that’s impacting all of us no matter what,” he tells The Root. “At the same time, before the pandemic, plenty of folks were still struggling. That student loan debt total remains over a trillion and that money is still owed. How are any of the people I am describing supposed to pay all that back now?”
Understandably, the question has been a primary concern for legions of college-educated millennial and Gen Z voters—and accordingly, a major talking point for several Democratic presidential candidates, most notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. With Warren now out of play for the presidency and Sanders lagging behind in the primaries, Arceneaux tells us he is grateful the two pushed the conversation about student debt cancellation to the forefront—and hopes the current frontrunner will follow their lead.
“While I see that Joe Biden has embraced some nominal level of debt forgiveness, it needs to be more expansive and I hope every person pushes him that way,” says Arceneaux. “Given his role in that 2003 bankruptcy bill, which made life even more hellish for folks with private student loan debt, he needs to atone for that and many other things, anyway.”
The issue may be political, but the themes of reconciliation and atonement that provide the framework for I Don’t Want to Die Poor are also intensely personal. Arceneaux chronicles the anxiety that emerged as he struggled to afford an undergraduate education at Howard University, chronic stress that has only intensified in the subsequent decade-plus under the weight of tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Using the relatable burden of financial insecurity, he effectively illustrates its tangled and often shame-filled relationship to other vulnerabilities—dating, body issues, sexuality, addiction, generational trauma, impostor syndrome and mental health—all while dismantling the illusion that success automatically translates to stability.
“I don’t think we have honest conversations about class, particularly with respect to social mobility in this country,” says Arceneaux, acknowledging that even his own growing public stature can be deceptive in a world obsessed with influencer culture. “With I Don’t Want To Die Poor, I was hoping to acknowledge that my life has changed in terms of some greater level of visibility and select opportunities that I am grateful for,” he continues. “At the same time, though, there are far too many presumptions made about what certain titles and opportunities mean financially, especially for many folks like me who are more or less starting from behind.
“[N]o matter what industry it is, most people are not being paid enough money, are saddled with debt and there is very little opportunity to get out of feeling stuck—whatever that may mean for you—because of how things are set up,” he concludes. “Let’s discuss how this impacts all facets of our lives and help remove more of these dumber narratives I find about millennials.”
With humility and ample (and often self-deprecating) humor, the excavation of artifice—even his own—is a theme that looms large in I Don’t Want to Die Poor, whether Arceneaux is hilariously musing over the “thot” he could have been or more seriously reckoning with the repercussions of his choices and shortcomings. Reminding us that inheritance can be emotional as well as economic, his parents, who first appeared in I Can’t Date Jesus, are perhaps the biggest influencers in his latest collection of essays, where he discusses and directly addresses each with striking candor. Ironically, he expresses doubts they will read his latest offering, as both are of a generation that largely prefers to keep such revelations private.
“I know the limitations of such conversations...you have to create your own sense of closure,” Arceneaux explains of his choice to write about his family dynamics. “To that end, in I Don’t Want to Die Poor I’m writing about my dad in the context of having an understanding of how a longing to escape one’s circumstances can easily give way to addiction that isn’t just intellectual. And with my mom, more so my guilt about attaching my debt to her name—as if I’m another person letting her down when she doesn’t deserve that. That’s more about me than them, really. But more broadly, I’m trying both not to repeat cycles while also [forgiving] myself.”
Arceneaux’s overarching thesis? “True freedom comes at an expensive cost”—and the release he offers in I Don’t Want to Die Poor is often an unexpectedly emotional one; especially for those of us who can relate to the specific and splintering trauma of financial uncertainty.
“Money impacts every facet of our lives, and that’s most cognizant to folks struggling harder than they ever should have to. So it was intentional and by design,” he concedes. “The book was never just about debt in terms of me struggling to pay a huge bill, but the emotional debt a lot of us carry as a result of that and how that all manifests in our lives.”
This is the universal truth that resonates even within the most personal Arceneaux’s essays, as the reader considers the toll of debt—tangible, visceral, generational—upon their own life.
“My goal whenever I write is to make people laugh and think. That’s the same with this,” he responds when asked what he hopes to communicate in I Don’t Want to Die Poor. “It’s not letting folks off the hook. It’s righting a wrong to our own collective betterment.
“So much of our chaos now is rooted in exploitation and selfishness. Wash your hands and cancel everyone’s student loan debt....be less selfish,” he continues. “More than anything else, if people could stand to be more compassionate right now and not assume that everything revolves around them and what they require at any given moment, a lot of people wouldn’t be fighting not to die alone in a crowded hospital at any part of the country imaginable right now.
“That, and don’t elect racist game show hosts as president,” he adds.
I Don’t Want to Die Poor is available across formats at online booksellers now.