It’s Time to Ease the Student Debt Burden on 45 Million Americans

The issue of economic inequality in the United States is so broadly felt and, for those of us who have enough, we are often insulated from the effects of that inequality. It’s so firmly embedded in the way we live that sometimes those of us that have enough don’t think much can change, or are afraid to push hard for change. Change is often incremental, but with enough momentum, sometimes it leaps.

Those that have more than enough and have become detached from their own good fortune and privilege often get downright angry when the topic of economic inequality is brought up. Being born into comfort isn’t always easy to acknowledge (especially if neighbors had similar comforts), being taught the myth of meritocracy (hard work is only part of the story), and being rewarded with a tax code that often skews toward the wealthiest shielding themselves from paying a reasonable share of taxes (those that imagine the government as a monster that steals money from them, rather than a system that benefits everyone)…all of these factors have allowed the wealthy to insulate themselves.

Since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United — -which effectively opened the floodgates on campaign finance — our political system has been inundated with special interest money. This has further protected corporations and enabled power to flow away from the people.

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Zuccotti Park, NYC, November, 2011

The specific issue of student debt has gained political traction over the last decade. Three years after the economy tanked, Occupy Wall Street protests erupted. The economic inequality that has existed in the U.S. for decades had stretched Americans to a breaking point. The bank bailout of 2008 infuriated a broad cross-section of Americans. By 2011, the claims made at the time of the bailout: that the economic stimulus legislation would eventually trickle down to Main Street and ordinary Americans echoed in the ears of angry young people across the country.

George Packer’s highly-readable 2013 nonfiction work The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America examined the hollowing out of the middle class over the decades, beginning in the late 1970s. It’s now one of the top items on incoming-President Joe Biden’s agenda. Left-leaning sites are debating Biden’s strategy and the potential impact of Executive Action on reducing or eliminating up to $50k of individual student debt.

The informative website Vox recently wrote about Biden and American opinion on student loan debt cancellation. The following poll puts American opinion into sharp demographic relief.

The question: Should Biden cancel student debt of up to $50k (the vast majority of individuals are within this range) for people making under $125k per year.

The simple answer: People under 45 (64% yes) and Black Americans (71% yes) are in strong agreement that he should. Women (58%) are much more likely than men (42%) to agree that Biden should cancel student debt.

Why is it that people are opposed to making life easier for so many (45 million) fellow Americans who are living under this dark cloud of debt, which in turn limits possibilities for their future?

For those that never went to college, it often boils down to jealousy and resentment.

“You shouldn’t have gone if you couldn’t afford it.”

For those that went to college but have now paid their loans, it might boil down to jealousy and resentment.

“I paid those loans off with hard work so everyone else should, too.” For these folks, they often ignore the sky-rocketing cost of tuition since 2000, and the hollowing out of middle-class jobs since 1990.

For those who didn’t have to worry about money when attending college, it’s often an abstract problem.

“How much did you have to take out? What career did you pursue?” For many of these folks, it’s an analytical equation more than a human one. It’s easier to blame the victim who is now in debt when you’ve never had to worry about it yourself. For many of these folks, they entered the workforce when jobs were plentiful and the economy was booming.

After this year of global suffering and death, after the mass unemployment, evictions, hospital overflows, food insecurity, and the overall isolation there’s no better time to ease this financial and psychological burden on millions of Americans.

It’s reasonable to ask for some form of limited part-time service, whether community, educational, or national in return for debt relief. Paying it forward used to be essential to democracy. That’s what the 1944 G.I. Bill was about. Our collective building of the American middle class (1950–1990) came from access to education and economic opportunity. The growth of HBCUs was directly connected to the G.I. Bill. The impact would have been much greater if Blacks were then given access to the suburban housing boom. Redlining and racial covenants largely kept Blacks from integrating the suburbs. Who was given access to these new suburban homes? Mostly white Americans.

In March, 2020, Senator Cory Booker gave a great speech on the importance of fair housing and integration. Booker spoke about how his parents, in 1969, managed to integrate a racially-restricted community in New Jersey, due in large part to the legal backing of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (part of the The Civil Rights Act of 1968).

Each individual’s financial situation is contextual and should be considered. Maybe those making upwards of $80k should be asked to pay some of their debt now, and the government might match their payment, or some other percentage. The details should be debated, but the time to act is now.

Those that resist moves toward economic equality have been influencing political action for too long.

In the future, if the 2020 election is going to be considered a referendum on the last two decades of American greed, elitism, growing racism and increasing division, which I believe it will be…then Biden and the Democratic Party should open this new term and new era with a clear salvo:

Let’s lighten the sky for those that have attempted to better their lives by taking out student loans. We owe that to each other.

Health care, housing affordability, raising the minimum wage, climate justice, voting rights, reproductive rights, corporate tax loopholes…and other issues…these will fight for space at the top of the Democratic agenda. One step…or leap…at a time.

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