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The reality of college tuition debt was on display at the Northeastern University graduation at the TD Garden in Boston on May 3, 2019. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The reality of college tuition debt was on display at the Northeastern University graduation at the TD Garden in Boston on May 3, 2019. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Make the People Happy: Erase Student Debt

Biden has a perfect opportunity to deliver progressive change to the millennials who voted for him.

Umme Hoque

 by The Progressive

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently stated that President Joe Biden can’t cancel student debt. This is incorrect; he can. All he needs to do is sign an executive order. The Debt Collective, a group I serve as organizing director for, even drafted an executive order for him to sign.

Pelosi also stirred outrage by embracing a rightwing talking point: “Suppose … your child just decided they, at this time, [do] not want to go to college, but you’re paying taxes to forgive somebody else’s obligations. You may not be happy about that.”

"For working-class people whose parents can't pay tuition out of pocket, there's no option other than borrowing money at a steep interest rate."

Days later, Pelosi’s own constituents let her know what would make them happy: for Biden to cancel student loan debt. On July 27, a resolution to this effect passed the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; on the same day, a similar resolution was adopted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Newark, New Jersey, passed one just days before that. 

I helped draft the resolution passed in March by the city council in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, thanks to the leadership of council member Kendra Brooks, who introduced it. Since then, dozens of cities and states, from Boston, Massachusetts, to Watsonville, California, have followed suit, calling on the President to act now. And more resolutions are on the way.

The text of the resolutions push back on the idea that student loan debt is a problem that only affects individuals, and that student debt cancellation would only help the privileged. In reality, student debt drags down entire communities across all income brackets, and cancellation would spur the economic recovery that our cities and towns desperately need while also helping to narrow the racial wealth gap. 

Although Pelosi is exhibiting her trademark level of confusion and condescension, a growing number of local officials recognize that cancelling debt is an economic stimulus issue, a racial justice issue, an intergenerational issue—an issue for all of us. 

In Philadelphia, which helped deliver the election for Biden, nearly one in four adults has student loan debt, totaling more than $11 billion dollars. The greatest amount of student loan debt per borrower is in Black and Latinx communities, and communities where people live substantially below the poverty level. 

In San Francisco, the parts of the city with the highest amount of student loan debt are also the lowest-income neighborhoods. The highest rates of delinquency and default are in neighborhoods with high percentages of Black and Latinx residents. 

It’s the same story in Washington, D.C., and in Newark, New Jersey. The District of Columbia has the largest student loan burden per borrower in the country. People living in our nation’s capital are carrying around $55,000 worth of debt, and those people are disproportionately Black and brown. 

Washington, D.C., council member Janeese George said about her resolution: “We passed this unanimously as a council saying, ‘Biden, you have the opportunity here to, with the stroke of a pen, get rid of trillions of dollars of student debt that are inhibiting young people and seniors alike from living fruitful lives.’ ”

Milwaukee’s resolution highlights how “44 percent of women said they had student debt, and half of those women said the loans impact their decisions about having children,” with Newark reminding us that “instead of supporting our students in their efforts to pursue higher education, the student loan system has increasingly relied on working class students to foot the bill for college; as a result, it is holding Black students, students of color, and immigrant students back from economic mobility and exacerbating the racial wealth gap.”

Young people are told they need higher education to have a chance at success, or just a decent paying job. For working-class people whose parents can’t pay tuition out of pocket, there’s no option other than borrowing money at a steep interest rate. Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, poor communities, and women are the most impacted. 

Arguing that people won’t want to pay taxes for something that doesn’t directly benefit them, as Pelosi does, is insulting and false. I may never be able to afford to retire, but I am deeply grateful my taxes right now are paying for Social Security for millions (I just wish their checks weren’t being garnished for unpaid student loan debt!).

If Pelosi is saying we can pick and choose what my taxes pay for, I’d like them to pay for the policies that voters overwhelmingly support: debt cancellation, tuition-free college, a higher minimum wage, voting rights, infrastructure that includes climate and care. In short, I’d like them to pay for bread-and-butter progressive policy items  that, despite enjoying widespread public support, our federal government remains perpetually stalled on.  

Biden and his Democratic colleagues should start by canceling the debt and investing in higher education. While Congress remains stuck as communities suffer, canceling student debt is a simple action the President can and must take to show he is serious about making a material difference in people’s lives. 

Canceling student debt would put billions of dollars back into local communities and businesses, creating jobs and opportunity. It could not only help rebuild our still fragile economy, but also serve as a way for Biden to thank the people who risked their health to vote for him. 

"Biden can't miss this opportunity. So, debtors and our allies resolve to keep organizing and pushing back to ensure he uses it. Our communities need nothing less."

As Philadelphia council member Brooks noted in an interview, it was Black women voters in her city who helped pull Biden across the finish line. “Now it’s like: What are you going to do to make our lives better? When are you going to do the things that you said you were going to do to make life better for women in Philly, Detroit, Atlanta.”

Not only would debt cancellation help keep supporters engaged in advance of the midterms (a recent poll reported that 40 percent of Black voters said they’ll sit out the next election if Biden doesn’t cancel student debt), it will also convert the opposition. A significant number of Republicans say they’ll vote Democratic if the President eliminates student loans. 

Without cancellation, our communities are stuck paying creditors instead of investing in each other. Families are using stimulus money to pay debts. And it’s obvious why. Medical debt has topped $140 billion. Utility debt—essentials like water, electricity, and gas—is estimated to be around $28 billion. Household debt balances are now over $14 trillion dollars. 

Ironically, while Pelosi argued that people don’t want their taxes to pay for someone else’s education, we watched Jeff Bezos fly into space, funded by a fortune amassed because his company doesn’t have to pay taxes or living wages. Billionaires like Bezos are why this country lacks adequate public services and why so many people have to take on debt to make ends meet. 

While Bezos can afford to take an overpriced vanity flight, forty-five million people are struggling with student loan debt. It doesn’t have to be this way. The President can eliminate this problem tomorrow. 

The urgency is clear. On September 30, the student loan payment moratorium will end. This moratorium, implemented by Trump and later extended by Biden, has provided a welcome reprieve for millions of indebted families during a catastrophic pandemic. 

Biden can’t miss this opportunity. So, debtors and our allies resolve to keep organizing and pushing back to ensure he uses it. Our communities need nothing less. 

© 2021 The Progressive
Umme Hoque

Umme Hoque

Umme Hoque is the organizing director at the Debt Collective.

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