Biden dives into risky student loan policy

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News had just emerged that President Biden was set to cancel at least some student loans, and Donald Trump Jr., in the final days of campaigning for US Senate candidate JD Vance in Ohio last month, n didn’t mince words as he excoriated the idea. at gatherings.

“Biden basically wants blue-collar workers like truckers — who haven’t had the luxury of going to college to get drunk for four years — to bail out a group of upper-middle-class kids who have chosen to spend tens of thousands of dollars they didn’t have on worthless gender studies degrees,” Trump later told The Washington Post, expanding on his message to voters.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a more moderate Republican, also chimed in, suggesting the move was little more than a political payment to win votes. “Other kickback suggestions: Cancel car loans? Cancel credit card debt? Forgive mortgages?” he wrote on social networks.

With Biden now closing in on an executive order canceling some student debt, Republicans are seizing on the issue to burnish their favorite bipartisan portrait: Democrats, they say, defend privileged elites, while Republicans support the United States. land workers. It’s a message that reflects the turbulent and risky politics of student debt for Biden, who has expressed both support and skepticism about canceling student loans.

Liberals respond that a broad loan forgiveness program would provide critical relief to Latinos, blacks and struggling youth in a tough economy. Yet even some Democrats are wary of a criticism that their party aims to help people who have chosen to go into debt at the expense of those who have not.

The issue of high college tuition fees emerged as a major focus of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, when the progressive leader urged supporters at campaign events to reveal how much they owed. In the 2020 campaign, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pushed for student debt reduction, and even Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) has now started pushing Biden On the question.

But Biden hasn’t been quick to embrace him as president, sometimes raising fairness concerns as well. At a CNN town hall early in his presidency, he referred to the “billions of dollars in debt for people who went to Harvard, Yale and Penn” and asked rhetorically, “Is it going to be forgiven, rather than using this money to provide early education for young children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Biden at odds with some Democrats on student loans

More recently, Biden signaled that any debt forgiveness plan would include strict limits, such as erasing no more than $10,000 of debt for an individual and only benefiting those earning less than $125,000. dollars per year.

The conservative-liberal split on the issue is more than a political dispute; it reflects contrasting worldviews, at a time when those with college degrees are more likely to be Democrats and those without such degrees are more likely to be Republicans. Some conservatives increasingly portray the university as leftist, elitist and wasteful; liberals, on the other hand, portray it as a vital, if too expensive, avenue of advancement for the underprivileged.

When The Post reported late last month that Biden had suggested to a group of Latino lawmakers that he was now open to canceling student debt, Ohio’s Republican primary for the Senate was in its infancy. days, and candidates have taken to the issue to flaunt their anti-establishment credentials.

A GOP hopeful, former Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken, said at a campaign event that canceling college debt was part of a “far left” agenda, adding: ‘How is that fair to kids who never went to college, who work as welders and plumbers? They should have to pay for these children who cannot find work or who will not find work? »

Vance, who ultimately won the nomination, tweeted that the loan forgiveness is “a massive boon to the wealthy, to college graduates, and especially to America’s corrupt college administrators.”

In an interview, Sen. John Thune (RS.D.), the second Republican in the Senate, predicted that Biden would provoke a backlash if he honored the loan forgiveness.

“I think you would have a revolt,” Thune said. He said he was baffled by the political calculation, saying: ‘I understand they may be trying to help a certain constituency, but I think the constituency that’s going to have major heartburn over this is much larger and will meet this kind of announcement with a lot of hostility.

Some Democrats have stressed that any loan forgiveness program should be carefully designed. “I would be open to some of them,” said Cheri Beasley, a Democratic Senate candidate from North Carolina. “But I think it’s really important to think about the impact on our economy.”

Others said that because it would likely take the Department of Education several months to implement such a policy, the political benefits might be limited.

Progressives argue that the idea has much broader support than opponents admit. In January, an Economist/YouGov poll found that 49% of Americans supported canceling student debt in public schools, while 35% opposed it. As for adults under 30, a Harvard Kennedy School poll in April found that 85% supported some form of government action on student debt, though only 38% favored cancellation. total.

A total of 45 million Americans held $1.6 trillion in federal student loans as of December, according to the latest available data from the Department of Education. Writing off $10,000 would wipe out the balances of about a third of borrowers, while leaving another 20% with less than half of what they owe.

And Democrats believe they will be rewarded for clearing at least some of that debt.

“We desperately need to motivate young people to vote to have a chance of winning this election,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic political strategist in touch with the White House. “These are the people most likely to be burdened with student debt, the people most likely to see these bills coming. I think they would be much more motivated to vote if they saw something tangible for help them.

Such a thought may play into Biden’s calculation. Hours before he told Hispanic lawmakers he was ready to settle student debt, half a dozen of Biden’s top advisers gathered in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to hear from two Harvard students who had studied the political opinions of young Americans. .

Among the interesting findings from Alan Zhang and Jing-Jing Shen, president and former president of the Harvard Public Opinion Project: even among those who had not attended college, 57% favored debt cancellation.

It seemed to resonate with those listening, including White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Presidential Adviser Steve Ricchetti, Senior Adviser Cedric L. Richmond and Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon. Afterwards, the two students were called into the Oval Office by the President, where they discussed for about half an hour the problems facing the country and their personal aspirations.

Progressive leaders are hoping to motivate voters like Philip Beechler, a 32-year-old Democrat in Atlanta, who noted that Biden promised during his campaign to cancel at least some student debt. “I know not all campaign promises will come to fruition,” said data analyst Beechler. “But why don’t people expect anything?”

If Biden doesn’t follow through, he added, “I’m not going to vote Republican. But maybe I won’t vote for the first time in 13 years.

Beechler, who said he was carrying nearly $80,000 in federal student loans, took issue with the Republican characterization of borrowers as spoiled and entitled. He received no family support when he got his bachelor’s degree in political science, he said, so he worked two minimum-wage jobs. He started at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and said his loan balance was so high in part because he frequently placed his loans in abstention when he struggled.

In the end, it took her seven years to graduate, and even then it wasn’t easy to build a financial footing and repay her loans. “I’m not lazy, bad with money, and very hard-working,” Beechler said. “I just want the same things other generations had – financial security.”

For many liberals, the problem is not selfish students, but a cost-prohibitive American higher education system, with the poor and minorities facing particularly high barriers and the most prestigious colleges often out of reach. reach of middle-class students.

According to the most recent data from the Federal Reserve, among the fastest growing categories of student borrowers over the past two decades are black students and seniors age 50 and older. The median income of households with student loans is $76,400 and 7% of borrowers live below the poverty line.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (DN.Y.) said he had “a heated debate” with Biden on debt cancellation several weeks ago during a presidential meeting with progressive lawmakers. “I noted that it was not just about racial justice and gender justice, but also about LGBTQ+ justice,” Jones said. “And I found him very likable.”

Jones argued that while college costs have skyrocketed in recent years, stagnating wages mean even graduates from top institutions often earn less than many realize. And like other liberals, he has opposed the idea of ​​limiting loan forgiveness to people below a certain income level, saying government initiatives aimed at specific groups often become less popular.

“This resource-testing approach — of pitting Americans against one another — has proven ineffective in building popular support for transformative social programs in this country,” Jones said. “The reason Social Security and Medicare have such broad support is that they are not means-tested, they are universal.”

The Senate’s most conservative Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who represents a state with many Trump voters who don’t have a college education, urged Biden to exercise caution in proposing any program of large-scale loan cancellation.

“I hope the president and all of his advisers will consider this very carefully before doing so,” Manchin said. “I think we all want to do something, and we should do something. We can do something, but more responsibly.

About Judith J. George

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