Eliminating $10,000 in student debt would help most borrowers. But it is not enough

Eliminating $10,000 in student debt would help most borrowers. But it is not enough
Image via Gage Skidmore.

CNN reported Monday that the Biden administration is on the cusp of deciding whether to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for those earning less than $125,000. It’s not only weighing the idea. It’s “leading toward” it, wrote reporters MJ Lee and Phil Mattingly.

The administration is also considering another extension of the pause in student loan repayments that was part of the overall response to the covid pandemic. The moratorium has thus far been extended four times. The current one ends September 1. As of this writing, the president has not indicated whether he will extend it.

He will, though. We should have little doubt.

READ MORE: President to make major Wednesday announcement about student loan forgiveness

Only an idiot would let student loan payments resume before the midterms. Joe Biden is many things. An idiot is not one of them.

As for $10,000 in relief, no one knows, but the smart money is on that very policy. The White House has been teasing the press corps with bits and pieces, for instance, Monday’s report and today by USA Today, which said to expect a decision tomorrow. For all the talk of terrible “messaging,” I think this administration has been pretty good about building suspense in anticipation of a dénouement. Per CNN:

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Sunday that Americans can expect a decision from the administration on student loans in the "next week or so." With less than two weeks to go, Americans have been left guessing for weeks whether Biden will extend the current moratorium or, perhaps, forgive some of their debt.

Lee and Mattingly wrote that the administration has been in regular contact with congressional Democrats, who have been involved in the student loan debate, “to discuss their thinking on student loan debt forgiveness, ahead of the current pause on payments expiring.”

That suggests that whatever the outcome, it will be the result of compromise among Democrats only – between those lawmakers who have been forceful about eliminating all debts and those who favor relief but not so much that it risks political liability. This process of compromise between and among congressional Democrats is the same process we saw result in the Inflation Reduction Act. Indeed, the $10,000 measure seems to be the consequence of that process.

READ MORE: 'For whom and why?' is the real question behind student loan forgiveness

Is it enough? I don’t think so. A lot of people are shouldering a lot of debt after 30-some years of societal belief in college education as the gateway to Shangri-La. Those who say student loans are predatory are only slightly exaggerating. With a national economy privileging “knowledge workers,” the pressure is intense among youth – so much so that many young people probably feel they don’t have a choice.

Still, $10,000 is ten thousand dollars. That’s going to be popular among people who need relief, especially borrowers of a certain age who have been paying off their balances over the years and have under ten grand remaining. That’s a third of all borrowers. For them, this so-called “half measure” would be the whole shebang. (Over a fifth of borrowers owes under $20,000. Their debt would be halved.)

For this reason, the student loan debate is mistaken. It’s usually seen as a means of attracting the youth vote. But this is the midterms we’re talking about. Young people usually skip them – if they even know they are happening. Those who do vote are likely to be the same people who are of a certain age who have been paying off their balances over the years to whom $10,000 is ten thousand dollars.

And those borrowers are not just Democrats. Like it or not, control of the Congress depends on Democratic incumbents attracting GOP voters. Given our current climate of ascending authoritarianism, vulnerable Democrats need resources with which to say: I see your white power and I raise you $10,000 to complicate your thinking.

(It’s an error to presume that student loan debt forgiveness will determine whether young Americans turn out in November. Another error is thinking young people voted for Biden on account of his pledge to cancel debt. As for those saying that Biden is leaving Black women in a lurch if he doesn’t discharge all debts, they have not been paying attention. The administration has canceled nearly $30 billion in loans, most of that relieving the burdens on Black women. Joe Biden has canceled more student loan debt than any president.)

Young people who owe way more than $10,000 should be hopeful, though. If the president again extends the moratorium (and it’s almost certain that he will), that would be the fifth time. That would be the fifth time he ramped up pressure on his own party to do more about student loan debt. Whatever “do more” ends up meaning, let’s hope it involves more than debt forgiveness. Let’s hope it takes on the whole of a higher education system in dire need of reform.

This is how progress happens in a democracy. It can be messy. It can be confusing. It can amount to squat. But we’ll never know if people are not looking for ways to pressure those in power and leverage that toward the best practical outcome for the greatest number. People are not looking for ways to pressure those in power when they cling dogmatically to goals that sound great but are practically impossible.

Does that mean $10,000 in relief is all that’s possible?

I don’t think so.

READ MORE: Progressives urge president to cancel student debt as pandemic pause period nears its conclusion

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