As students settle into the new school year, an increasingly dire and visible crisis should become a high priority for progressives: the student-debt crisis. With 44 million Americans now shouldering $1.5 trillion in debt, there are compelling political and economic reasons to end this drag on our nation’s well-being. It’s time to cancel all outstanding student debt.
Data for Progress polled on legislation, currently co-sponsored by 19 members of Congress, that would reverse Trump’s tax cuts and use the money recouped to finance the zeroing out of outstanding federal student-loan debt. The survey found this a popular idea, with net positive support of 6 percent (41 percent in support, 35 percent opposed) overall. Most important to the current political moment, it has strong support (55 percent in support, 25 percent opposed) among student-debt holders, a group that makes up approximately one in five potential voters. Student-debt holders are more progressive than the general public, but they also report that they are less enthusiastic about voting in this year’s elections, according to our polling. The political message seems clear: Student debt is a potent issue that has the potential to drive turnout and influence votes, in 2018 and beyond. Individuals holding student debt may well decide which party will control the House of Representatives next session.
Analysis of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) survey suggests that many pundits misunderstand the student-debt trap. Economist Justin Wolfers is a good example—for years, he has offered that student-debt holders are “kids,” assumed that they earn more than others, and insisted “that the proponents can’t find a single economist to support this idiotic idea.”
(Here are four, for starters.)
Despite Wolfers’s characterization, student debt affects people of all ages—even some who qualify for Social Security. In 2015, 114,000 student-loan debtors were subject to Social Security garnishment, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and CCES data suggests that one in five people responsible for paying off a student loan is aged 50 or over. Forty-seven percent of voting-eligible adults are over 50.
Although many observers see student debt as a problem for middle-class college graduates, the numbers show that more than half of studen-debt holders over 26 have not completed a four-year degree. These borrowers have student debt but lack the economic benefits of a four-year college degree.