At a press conference in November, two weeks after winning the 2020 election, Joe Biden fielded a question about student debt: Does student loan forgiveness factor into your plan, and would you take executive action to achieve it?
“It does figure into my plan,” he said. “It should happen immediately.”
But it hasn’t, yet. On Inauguration Day, Biden signed a series of executive actions to address urgent crises in America, decreeing a mask mandate, launching the process for rejoining the Paris climate accord, and extending the federal student loan payments suspension.
The extension, which lasts until the end of September, is good news for the over 40 million Americans whose payments were about to resume at the end of January, during unprecedented levels of physical and financial suffering from the ongoing pandemic. But the Biden administration can do much more. Biden promised to do more.
And he has strong support from Congress. Recently, Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a resolution calling on the president to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt, with Representative Ayanna Pressley and members in the house introducing their own resolution calling on the president to do the same.
Both resolutions urge executive action to provide relief to individuals impacted by the pandemic, to boost the suffering economy, and to address racial inequities. At a time when the threat of unemployment, business closures, and evictions is dangerously high, millions of Americans cannot wait a second longer—as Representative Pressley said, “No one should have to choose between paying their student loan payment, putting food on the table or keeping themselves and their families safe and healthy.”
The $1.7 trillion in total student loan debt is a crisis that predates Covid-19. Student debt has exploded over the past decade, surpassing credit card debt to become the second-largest type of debt in America. The scale of the problem has suffused every facet of American life. Student debt prevents homeownership, widens the racial wealth gap, guts retirement savings, and much more.
Now, the burden of student debt is compounding the impacts of the pandemic. Challenges like lost wages, increased medical costs, and the economic downturn are creating new and persistent financial obstacles that families will face for years to come. According to Representative Pressley, as people are vaccinated and the world opens back up, student debt “stands in the way of meaningful recovery.” Extending the pause on payments only delays the devastation. What we really need is permanent debt relief.
One study shows that debt cancellation would grow the economy by hundreds of billions of dollars each year, creating the more prosperous future Americans hope to see when the health crisis is over. Biden’s economic recovery plan aims to put people back to work; debt cancellation would add up to 1.5 million jobs per year, as we rebuild industries decimated by the pandemic. It would also free up hundreds, even thousands, of dollars each month for families and bolster consumer spending. Biden committed to making real the promise of education regardless of race; debt cancellation would help close the racial wealth gap for Black borrowers.
There is a growing movement calling on Biden to cancel student debt. In January, a coalition of over 325 civil rights, consumer rights, veteran, and student organizations—among them the NAACP, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Young Farmers Coalition, and Consumer Reports—sent a letter urging the president to cancel student debt with an executive action.
“Cancelling federal student debt is a critical tool the government has to provide more funds for basic household needs,” said Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, one of the organizations that signed the letter to Biden. “So many are on the precipice of financial ruin.”
According to Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, which also signed the letter, Biden has the power to pull people away from that precipice “with the stroke of a pen,” he said. “[Biden] has a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
A majority of Americans support canceling student debt as well. One poll show that over six in 10 Americans support permanently reducing student loan debt by $20,000 during the pandemic. Another poll, from Vox and Data for Progress, found that more than half of voters support canceling $50,000 in student debt for every borrower.
Biden can act boldly. As president, he has the authority to cancel debt immediately and unilaterally. Executive powers allow for the president to direct the education secretary to cancel any and all federal debts. In fact, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos exercised this same power when they provided short-term payment relief in 2020.
The real question is, if Republicans could funnel over a trillion dollars to the absurdly wealthy, why shouldn’t Biden act courageously for hard-working Americans?