Joe Biden Is Toying With Forgiving Student Loans. He Should Wipe Them Out Altogether
by Micah Uetricht
26 November 2020
America is in the midst of an unprecedented debt crisis. As it stands, 45m Americans collectively owe nearly $1.6tn — a figure that has now surpassed the country’s total amount of credit card debt ($930bn).
I am one of those Americans. I hold about $30,000 in debt from my time at university – which actually makes me a very average student-debt holder, according to recent estimates. Like most debt holders, the money I’m expected to pay back is an enormous economic fetter on my life, preventing me from seriously saving for retirement, buying a home or ordering guacamole on my burrito bowl at Chipotle.
And while I am not near penury, unlike many student debtors my age, mentally, my debt still hangs around my neck like a millstone. I think about it often, staring forlornly at the monthly payment on my bank statements and thinking about what else I could do with that money, beating myself up over the stupidity of taking it on, wishing that I had not undertaken the education I did despite the transformative positive effect it had on my life.
With so many Americans in a similar boat, this crushing financial burden is one key reason why so many young people backed Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy this election. He proposed to wipe out student loan debt, full stop.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, didn’t talk much about the issue on the campaign trail, and at one point actually lectured young people upset about their life prospects. “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are — give me a break! No no, I have no empathy for it.”
Thankfully, he has changed his tune — well, slightly, anyway.
“It’s holding people up,” Biden said of student debt earlier this month, in reference to legislation proposed by Democrats in the House of Representatives for $10,000 in immediate student loan forgiveness as part of a new Covid-19 relief bill. Debtors are in “real trouble,” he acknowledged. Indeed, though student loan payments have been frozen in the US since the pandemic began, they’re on track to restart at the end of the year — as my student loan company has been kindly reminding me via email. “They’re having to make choices between paying their student loans and paying their rent,” Biden went on. “It should be done immediately.”
Whatever the reason for this shift, it’s welcome. But Biden should commit to going much further — and has so far refused.
He could (and should) use the power of an executive order to cancel all student debt, which he unsurprisingly hasn’t pledged to do. He also hasn’t yet articulated how much he’s willing to forgive. Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren are calling for $50,000 in debt forgiveness. Prominent progressives and leftists like former labour secretary Robert Reich and Bernie Sanders surrogate Nina Turner, however, are insisting on cancelling all of it.
The danger with Biden not committing to serious student debt forgiveness, and not being willing to bypass a potentially Republican-controlled Senate by using executive action to do so, is that he may eventually insist that, while he might like to pursue such forgiveness, his hands are tied. Perhaps by the time his administration gets around to it, he’ll argue that he has run out of the requisite political capital, or insist that Republicans won’t let him pass such a measure.
Debtors will then be left with a small amount of debt forgiveness, but by no means enough (assuming the $10,000 in the new stimulus bill makes it through Congress intact, which is not a given). Meanwhile, Biden may pursue more complicated, means-tested schemes, like the one he recently proposed that would forgive government, education and other nonprofit workers $10,000 in student debt for each year of service, for up to five years. But like all means-tested measures, this would be unnecessarily complicated and would likely prevent enormous numbers of people from benefiting from the policy — which is often the point, from the view of legislators who want to say they’ve passed needed social policy but don’t actually want people to use those policies in large numbers.
Biden was the Democrat that I, and the rest of the left, least wanted to be president out of the field of possible candidates, given his awful right-wing record. He has a long history of steadfast pro-corporate governance and, when the time came, ran a hollow campaign against Donald Trump in which he refused to put forward any substantive economic aid package for American workers, despite the desperate need for such measures in a country that is suffering badly during the pandemic.
Complete student loan forgiveness would mark a major departure from that agenda. Not to mention, it would be wildly popular among millions of voters. And who knows: once Americans realize the government can wipe out crushing student loan debt with ease, they may demand much more.
Over 137m Americans are suffering under medical debt (myself, again, sadly included); two-thirds of personal bankruptcies in the country are related to medical debt. Why not wipe all that out too?
And, come to think of it, if it’s possible to wipe out college and medical debt, why can’t universities and health care be free to begin with?
Of course, Biden has no sympathy for such demands — he’s opposed to them. But the fact that student debt forgiveness has been forced onto his agenda shows that it’s possible for the left to make him pursue progressive policies, even though he doesn’t support them. Such is the battle the left must fight throughout his four-year presidency. If and when Biden caves on student loan forgiveness, the left should demand much more.
Micah Uetricht is the deputy editor of Jacobin magazine and host of its podcast The Vast Majority. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (2014) and coauthor of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (2020).