American indebtedness has never been higher than it is today — and now functioning as the nation’s largest consumer bank, the Department of Education is the clearest culprit of the creditors. Uniquely situated as the lender, regulator and debt collector, the federal government has a $1.6 trillion federal student loan portfolio. Needlessly extracting wealth from 47 million people, this cloud of debt is systemically preventing communities from the opportunity to buy a home, start a family or save for retirement. But with a simple executive order, Biden can switch the reality of predatory loans that burden families into liberating financial grants that aid them.
The racial, economic, moral and pedagogical arguments for canceling student debt are clear, convincing and well-researched. Doing so could create millions of jobs, boost average GDP by as much as $108 billion per year for the next 10 years and narrow the racial wealth gap by 40 percent. Full student debt cancellation would be the largest bottom-up economic stimulant in recent U.S. history. Eliminating the country’s largest household debt type (outside of mortgages) will begin to make real the promise of education as a right, not a privilege. But perhaps President Biden should administer full student debt cancellation for a reason even more obvious and straightforward: politics.
A recent Morning Consult poll found Biden’s extended pause on federal student loan interest and payments is popular, but that the president could “reap rewards” by going even further. According to another poll, nearly half of voters in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would be either “somewhat more likely” or “much more likely” to vote in November if President Biden canceled $10,000 in student loan debt. That likelihood of voting increases by 11 points when asked if all student loan debt should be canceled.
With Biden’s Build Back Better agenda thwarted by obstructionists and the recurring difficulty in upholding the key pillars of our democracy, canceling student debt may be one of the few political wins Biden can score heading into a historically tough midterm election.
If well executed, canceling all federal student debt would dramatically expand the democratic electorate and deliver Biden one of the greatest political rewards in electoral history. The grim alternative was voiced plainly by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts): “If we fail to use the months remaining before the elections to deliver on more of our agenda, Democrats are headed toward big losses in the midterms.”
After a herculean effort won two Senate seats in Georgia and essentially saved Biden’s presidency, the White House would be wise to heed the political advice of organizations like New Georgia Project, which, in a joint letter with my organization, the Debt Collective, declared student debt relief paramount to an electoral strategy in November. They wrote, “broad-based student debt cancellation would provide [Georgia’s] community leaders with the ammunition to confidently engage and grow the electorate in this crucial midterm election year.”
In a welcome rhetorical shift in his approach to student debt cancellation, Biden says he is now considering canceling a “substantial” amount of student debt. But Democrats risk snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory by picking and choosing which debtors are worthy or unworthy of relief — basing cancellation on income, level of educational attainment, or otherwise. For starters, “focusing on household income,” says the Roosevelt Institute, “significantly underestimates the socioeconomic impact on low-wealth borrowers, especially those who are Black and Latinx.” Worse, income cutoffs would simply create additional administrative burdens for the exact borrowers whom a more regressive form of cancellation aims to benefit.
But along with being administratively impossible to execute, income cutoffs, or a less-than-full amount of cancellation, would be a fundamental political mistake. The success of programs like Social Security and Medicare are precisely because they are universal. As Jubilee Legal attorney Sparky Abraham put it, “If student debt is a good policy, why cancel any? If it’s a bad policy, why leave any?” Abraham is right — Biden should erase all federal student debt for everyone on the grounds that this debt is illegitimate and an unjust poverty tax that disproportionately affects Black and Brown families.
Some naysayers have attempted to throw cold water on this issue by chalking up student debt cancellation as a policy that could “alienate” those without student debt. Data and polling say otherwise. Canceling student debt is broadly popular with the majority of voters without a college degree. And 58 percent of voters who do not owe student debt support eliminating some or all student debt as well.
Ironically, it’s the means-testing approach — not full cancellation — that could possibly alienate people. The White House is considering capping cancellation at the undergraduate level — a presumed attempt not to be seen as bailing out “elites.” But a quick glance at essentially any data set available would reveal that this targeted proposal leaves out to dry a group of people who desperately need cancellation: borrowers with high debt-to-income ratios like our nation’s public defenders, social workers, teachers, librarians, nurses, and other health care workers.
It’s not just that any amount of cancellation less than full cancellation is unnecessarily regressive, it’s also just not in line with what voters say they want, and certainly not the voters Biden needs to vote for Democrats in November.
Biden’s approval among young people recently hit “depths no Democratic president had plumbed in decades,” dipping into the mid-to low-30s. In a new Harvard poll, nearly 9 in 10 young people say they favor government action on student debt, with a plurality favoring full cancellation. And for years now, Black voters of all ages have overwhelmingly supported full student debt cancellation — so much so that 40 percent of Black voters would “consider staying home for the next election” if Biden refuses to take action.
Will a handful of Republican demagogues be angry that working-class families are finally getting their turn at debt relief? Likely so. But that’s not who Biden needs to mobilize to go to the ballot box this fall in another attempt to save our democracy from a fascist coup.
The recent extension of the payment pause — which wouldn’t have happened without pressure from organizations like the Debt Collective — ensures 45 million Americans can keep cash in their pocket rather than handing it over to a predatory debt collector with the title U.S. Department of Education on its door. But it’s not enough to pause a crisis — or solve half of it. If Biden wants to prevent extremists from taking control of the House or the Senate, he has to inspire people — and a wide-scale student debt jubilee might just be his best bet with which to get started.
The student debt cancellation winds are at Biden’s back. For once, Biden should treat student debtors like the too-big-to-fail bank that we truly are. Cancel all student debt and ease the economic burden for millions. And maybe even brag about it.