Student debt relief isn’t the key to victory at the polls for Democrats. Biden should do it anyway.
No one stays in power forever. So you might as well use it to help people.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. I’m on a bit of a baby break following the birth of my son Owen, and this is the second of two newsletters this week. I’ll be back with more Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day. I hope my American readers have a great holiday, and all of you have nice weekends. Cheers — Aaron
President Biden is losing ground with young voters, and Democrats are worried about Republicans taking the House and possibly the Senate as well in the midterms. Progressives have urged Biden to energize younger voters by fulfilling or going beyond his campaign promises to repeal $10,000 in student debt for every borrower. Biden reiterated his commitment to this idea earlier this month, but some party centrists worry that blanket cancellation would benefit affluent students — giving Republicans a chance to portray debt forgiveness as a giveaway to elites.
Neither progressives nor centrists have a strong electoral case. Student debt forgiveness is unlikely to have a major effect on the midterms one way or the other (more on that later), but it shouldn’t matter whether it does or not, because it’s the right thing to do. Biden ought to repeal student debt because he promised to do so, and because the student debt burden is unjust.
Elections are important. But it’s also important for Democrats to advance equitable, compassionate policies for their own sake while they’re in office.
Polling on the repeal of student debt is vaguely positive. A 2021 Morning Consult poll found that 62 percent of voters agreed that some student debt should be forgiven. Overall, 20 percent wanted all student loan debt forgiven and 30 percent said no debt should be forgiven. Fifteen percent said only lower-income Americans should have all their debts wiped out. Another 28 percent thought that some education debt should be eliminated for everyone or for lower-income Americans, and 10 percent had no opinion.
You could see these numbers as a remit to repeal some debt for lower-income Americans — that’s what Biden has advocated. On the campaign trail, he promised to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for every borrower. He hasn’t done that yet, but he has made some gestures at forgiveness. He has extended a pause on loan paybacks during the pandemic through August, and he’s also focused on programs which provide relief for students with disabilities or who were defrauded by for-profit colleges. Since most people agree some student debt forgiveness is a good idea, Biden’s half-measures may seem like the safest course.
But do the mixed signals indicate support for a mixed policy? Or do they just suggest most people don’t have strong opinions on a fairly technical and complicated issue that hasn’t gotten a ton of press coverage?
Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue the second case. In their seminal 2017 book Democracy for Realists, they explain that voters don’t generally vote based on informed rational policy decisions, but instead tune in vaguely to signals from partisan leaders and to their own sense of whether their lives are going well or not.
People make decisions, Bartels says, “based on momentary feeling and not on some sound understanding of how those decisions will improve or hurt their life.” So, when someone answers a poll question about student debt, they’re guessing as to what they think will be helpful or fair. That kind of casual impulse is going to have much less of an effect on how they vote than partisan affiliation. It’s also going to have less of an effect than the structural factors which make the midterms a consistent nightmare for the president’s party.
There’s strong recent evidence that popular policies don’t necessarily give the president a huge boost at the polls. Democrats passed a change to the Child Tax Credit in early 2021 which sent monthly payments of $250-$300 for every child in low-income families. After only one month, the number of children in poverty fell by 3 million. Overall, child poverty rates dropped from around 17 percent to 12 percent.
Helping impoverished children is quite popular. A September 2021 poll found 59 percent approval for the policy, which is a solid number in such a partisan environment. But the credit was nonetheless allowed to lapse in early 2022, plunging millions of children back into poverty.
Some analysts think Biden’s popularity may have been harmed among parents by the credit lapsing. But the effect is awfully hard to track amidst all the other events of the presidency. One poll found that two-thirds of those who received the benefit said it only helped a little. That’s a response which may have been influenced by Biden’s general unpopularity, as people are loath to give someone they dislike much credit. In any case, the popular, manifestly successful policy did not provide an unambiguous electoral boost.
Does that mean that Democrats should just forget the Child Tax Credit? No; it had a major, measurable impact on child poverty! Reducing child poverty is an important and valuable goal. If you’re not in office to reduce child poverty, what are you there for?
Similarly, Democrats should want to forgive student debt. College costs have risen almost 400 percent over the last 30 years. Public universities, which are supposed to be affordable for less affluent students, have had the fastest tuition increase, tripling in cost over the same time period, during which state budgets have been slashed. Student total debt is now around $1.5 trillion, passing both auto loan and credit card debt.
Polls show 84 percent of students who take out needs-based Pell grants graduate from college with debt, while less than half of students without Pell grants do. High debt loads increase the chances of students dropping out, which in turn makes it harder to pay back the loans. Low-income students often owe less than their wealthier peers, but they are nonetheless more likely to fall behind or default on monthly payments. Loan levels are highest, and growing most rapidly, in areas with the lowest income.
The student debt crisis is also a disaster for Black students, who tend to have less generational wealth to help them afford escalating college costs. Four years after graduation, the average Black college graduate owes $52,726, while the average white graduate owes $28,006.
This huge debt burden, falling on low income and Black students especially, means that education is no longer a clear path to upward mobility, as the least affluent students are least able to afford the cost or repay debts. Education debt is a huge weight crushing the American dream. Politicians committed to equity and justice should try to help.
Of course, there are many things the Democrats should do if they could: pass Medicare for All, restore the Child Tax Credit, enfranchise the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, ensure voting rights for all. Most of these require congressional action, however, and are therefore DOA in the evenly divided, filibuster-clogged Senate.
Student debt relief is different. Many experts believe Biden can forgive student debt by changing regulations with an executive order. He could instantly repeal $10,000 worth of debt for every student, as he promised during the campaign. Or he could repeal $50,000 worth of debt per student, as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have suggested. Or he could repeal all debt — and remember that the average Black student’s debt is in fact more than $50,000.
Republicans will no doubt scream if Biden repeals debt, because they categorically oppose financial help for poor people, or Black people, or anyone except the very wealthy. Even if Democrats and independents approve, the policy is unlikely to help them counteract the midterm curse.
But repealing debt will help millions of students. It will give low-income and Black students, especially, a chance to seek out meaningful work and economic mobility without being weighed down by massive payments to lenders. It will allow a generation to face a future of opportunity, rather than one of debt. In a democracy, no one stays in office forever. While you’ve got the tools, you should use them to help people.