Students, campaigners and top Democrats have been pushing President Joe Biden to use executive authority to cancel at least $50,000 in student loan debt per person. Student loan debt in the U.S. stands at $1.7 trillion, with some 45 million people owing money. Filmmaker and organizer Astra Taylor, an author, documentary director and organizer with the Debt Collective, says Biden has clear legal authority to cancel student debt. “Not doing this is a choice,” she says. We also speak with Braxton Brewington, a digital strategist with the Debt Collective, who says student debt cancellation is also politically smart. “President Biden has a unique opportunity to bring together a broad coalition of individuals who otherwise would be unlikely to come together around a policy,” he says.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
We turn now to the student debt crisis, which tops $1.7 trillion in the United States, with some 45 million people owing money. Students, campaigners, as well as top Democrats, have been pushing President Biden to use executive authority to cancel at least $50,000 in student loan debt. Biden was asked Tuesday about his plans to do so at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee.
JOYCELYN FISH: We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed. We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I will not make that happen. It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or public university. It depends on the idea that I say to a community, “I’m going to forgive the debt,” the billions of dollars in debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn and schools my children — I went to a great school. I went to a state school. But is that going to be forgiven, rather than use that money to provide for early education for young children who are — come from disadvantaged circumstances?
AMY GOODMAN: Democrats hit back, with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowing to keep pressing Biden, noting that both Presidents Obama and Trump used executive authority to cancel student debt.
Freshman New York Congressmember Mondaire Jones wrote a piece recently in the New York Daily News detailing his own experience being saddled with student debt after leaving Stanford. He wrote, quote, “Canceling $50,000 in student debt is an issue of economic, racial and LGBTQ justice.”
Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday Biden would not take any executive action until his Justice Department is installed and reviews the matter, and suggested Congress send Biden a bill to cancel $10,000 in student debt.
For more, we’re joined by Astra Taylor, organizer with the Debt Collective, who wrote the foreword to their new book, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition. Astra is also the director of the documentary You Are Not a Loan. That’s L-O-A-N. And Braxton Brewington, digital strategist with the Debt Collective, working to end the student loan crisis.
Astra, so this is becoming a major issue right now. Of course, it has been for students who have debt, but right now to the top. Biden is asked about this, and he puts his foot down. Your response?
ASTRA TAYLOR: He put his foot down, and he put his foot in his mouth, in the sense that it was a very meandering response. And it was very misleading. In fact, he seemed to be conflating two of his policies.
So, let’s be very clear: Joe Biden ran on two promises: one, to cancel $10,000 of student debt across the board, for everyone, as part of a COVID relief package, acknowledging that we’re in a deadly pandemic; in addition, he ran promising undergraduate debt cancellation for people who earn up to $125,000 a year, who attend specific schools, public colleges, HBCUs, historically Black colleges and universities. So, we need to at least hold him to his basic promises.
But what he did in that rambling response, he invoked straw figures. He invoked false scarcity and nonsolutions. So, for example, you know, saying that we have to choose between investing in early childhood education and justice for student debtors, that’s a false choice. These things are not opposed.
What I take some encouragement from, and I think your listeners should, as well, is that, you know, his press secretary clarified some of his remarks and said, as you just shared with us, that they are actually looking into the legal possibilities of executive action. So, what I see in this is, actually, in their mixed messaging, that this is very much in play. This is still a fight.
And we have to be absolutely clear: President Biden has the authority to cancel all student debt. He was not being forthright when he questioned that in his remarks. He has the authority. It was granted by Congress decades ago. And he can erase all federal student loans. And he should.
Debtors are not asking for debt forgiveness. We’re asking for justice, because Joe Biden, let’s be clear, he didn’t have to graduate with student debt. He talked about his kids and how they had student debt. But his generation was able to go to college and graduate without this enormous burden. So, all people are asking for is parity, to replace this broken system that he played such a crucial role in building.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Astra, your response to those who’ve suggested that canceling student debt through executive action could lead to legal challenges from student loan companies and other firms involved in debt collection? Is that correct? And these would not be risks if student debt cancellation occurred through Congress.
ASTRA TAYLOR: So, the legal experts — and here, I’m relying on Eileen Connor from Harvard Law — are very clear that this authority exists. So, if you are able to lend money, then you’re able to not collect it, right? So, if I lend you $10, I don’t have to collect it. So, the vast majority of student loans are held by the federal government. This is the government lending. The government has the right to decide not to collect.
Now, sure, there would be some legal challenges. I’m sure there’d be some lawsuits. But what I’m hearing from the real experts in this space is that these are not major concerns. It’s like, “Bring it. Bring it on. Let’s fight it out.” But this is not a reason to be cowardly. And it’s certainly not a reason to just rely on Congress, because we all know how broken our political system is.
And so, if Biden and his administration have this authority, they have this power — again, it was granted by Congress in the Higher Education Act of 1965; this is not an overreach — then use the power in your possession. And I think we have to be clear that not doing so is a choice.
There’s no limit. Doesn’t have to be $10K. Doesn’t have to be $50,000, which is actually — the researchers who proposed $50,000, based on thinking about racial justice and other factors, have actually updated their figures in three years from now. The people behind $50,000 are saying $75,000. But he can cancel all federal student loan debt. And we have to be clear: Not doing this is a choice.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to bring Braxton Brewington into the conversation. Braxton, can you respond to what Biden said and talk about your own experience as a student and with debt?
BRAXTON BREWINGTON: Absolutely. What [Biden] said is — couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is it a choice, it’s a policy assault. The individuals that would benefit the most from student loan debt [cancellation] are individuals like me, Black and Brown borrowers, mostly Black women borrowers, who, frankly, have upwards of $35,000, $50,000, hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt, that could benefit from this policy.
And President Biden has a unique opportunity to bring together a broad coalition of individuals, who, in otherwise, would be unlikely to come together around a policy. We know that one in five Trump supporters said they would consider supporting Joe Biden in the election if Joe Biden were to cancel student debt. And we just saw an NBC survey the other day saying 40% of Black voters would consider sitting out the next election if Joe Biden did not consider supporting student loan debt [cancellation]. And we also know that nonvoters — a great way to bring nonvoters into the democratic process is to cancel student loan debt.
So, this is a tool that is widely available to President Biden. And him not using executive action to cancel full student loan debt is a policy assault on people, individuals like me, who, frankly, voted for Joe Biden in hopes of this policy becoming a reality, because we know that not only is this a student loan debt crisis, but there’s a pandemic, where people are in perpetual fear of losing their lives. And the last thing folks like me need is to be worried about a debt that the federal government has, frankly, proved, since March and into September, that they don’t need our payments in order to create revenue for the government to function.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Braxton, talk about your own experience. Where did you go to college? What kind of debt did you accrue? And what would it mean for it to be forgiven?
BRAXTON BREWINGTON: Yeah, I went to North Carolina A&T State University, which is the largest public HBCU in the country. I graduated with two bachelors, actually, in journalism and political science, like many of my partners. And I accrued, in my name, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt. I haven’t checked recently, but it’s upwards of $35,000, $37,000. And that’s just the debt that’s taken out in my name. My parents were fortunate enough to be able to take out a loan in their name on my behalf. And so, when we accumulate all of that debt, it’s even more than the debt that I have.
And how has that affected me? Luckily, I’m only out of college for the past couple of years, and so I’ve been in deferment. I haven’t had to make any payments on my student loan debt. But I was gearing up to, a couple of months into the pandemic — if the pandemic didn’t happen, I would have had to start making hundreds of dollars’ worth of payments.
And I think one thing important to — important thing to realize is that 40% of people who have student debt don’t even have that diploma. So, we are expecting people who went to college and, for whatever reason, did not get their diploma — and we’re expecting them to pay that debt, when they’re getting paid what a high school graduate earns.
And so, you know, there’s lots of aspects to this, as well, not forgetting seniors — this is an intergenerational issue — seniors who can get 15% of their student loan checks — their Social Security checks garnished for student loan debt, which is insane. And so, this is an intergenerational issue that affects not only myself and my peers, but seniors and the people that I’m in community with.
And so, I can’t stress enough that, you know, again, to not — for Joe Biden to — we’re 30 days into this administration. That is 30 days of a policy failure that President Biden has allowed, in terms of not canceling student loan debt.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Astra Taylor, I wanted you to respond to this tweet of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As soon as Biden talked about not going to $50,000, she struck back. And among the things she has said is: “Very wealthy people already have a student loan forgiveness program. It’s called their parents. The idea that millionaires and billionaires are willingly letting their kids drown in federal student loans & that’s why we can’t go big on forgiveness is about as silly as it sounds.” Explain what she’s saying and what you see at this point needs to be done. Fit in Jubilee 100 with this.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Brilliant. I was going to quote that tweet, because it’s so spot-on. So, one of the common responses — and when I said Joe Biden invoked these straw figures, this is what I was pointing to. He painted this portrait that student debt cancellation would lead to cancellation for people who went to Harvard and Penn. And the argument is essentially that student debt cancellation is regressive, because this stereotype of affluent, Ivy League-educated people would get relief.
You know, as Braxton brilliantly just laid out, that’s not the case. That’s not the real demographics of student debt. The children of millionaires and billionaires do not take out debt to go to school. Their parents pay the price. They pay the price of tuition up front. What that means, actually, is they pay less over time, because people like Braxton have to borrow, and their parents, they borrow money, and they pay interest. So people who are poor pay much more for the same degree over years and decades, because that’s the way that debt works. So student debt itself is regressive. It’s means-tested. It hits the people who have the least income, the least intergenerational wealth, who are the most vulnerable, the most likely to face wage discrimination at the workplace — it hits them the hardest.
And so, this is why Joe Biden’s framework is deeply flawed. We need to push back on this and say it’s an economic justice issue, it’s a racial justice issue, and canceling student debt is also a democracy issue, because we all are entitled to live in a society where our fellow people can pursue education.
We’re not going to get to full debt cancellation without organizing and pushing Joe Biden. He is, famously, the senator from Delaware, the credit card capital of the world. He has helped create this crisis. He’s made it harder for student debtors to get relief over the years. It’s organizing that got us to this point.
We have organized a student debt strike, the Biden Jubilee 100, 100 strikers — symbolizing his first 100 days — demanding justice. We invite people to go to DebtCollective.org to sign up for phone calls, for events and for upcoming protests to push this administration to use the power they possess to do the right thing and to start to enact this FDR-size presidency that we’ve been promised and that we do not seem to be getting.
AMY GOODMAN: Astra Taylor, we want to thank you so much for being with us, organizer with the Debt Collective and author of the foreword to the new book, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition, and Braxton Brewington, digital strategist with the Debt Collective. We want to thank you both so much for being with us.