President Joe Biden still plans on restarting federal student loan payments in May, falling short of his campaign promise to forgive at least $10,000 in student loan debt per borrower. As the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year and the White House hemorrhages support from young people, progressives, as well as advocates for debt cancellation, warn that inaction on the student debt crisis will almost certainly hurt Democrats in this year’s midterm elections.
Biden’s refusal to implement modest debt relief also comes at a time when prices are surging and pandemic-related federal benefits are being phased out, placing the greatest burden on the poor and working-class. After facing backlash for failing to further extend a moratorium on student loan payments, first enacted under the Trump administration when the pandemic began two years ago, the Biden administration reversed its position last month and announced a 90-day extension of the moratorium, citing the Omicron variant as the primary reason for the change.
“The longer there’s a pause, the harder it is to justify the need to collect on these payments when people can’t pay, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like people’s financial situations are going to get any better in the next few months,” Braxton Brewington, a spokesperson for the Debt Collective, a national union for debt holders, told The Nation.
Brewington called Biden’s unkept promise a “gut punch,” saying the president has turned his back on many of the groups that make up his political base. Though Biden’s student debt cancellation proposal was a lot smaller than those of some of his 2020 primary opponents, from Bernie Sanders’s universal debt forgiveness plan to Elizabeth Warren’s means-tested forgiveness policy, Biden repeatedly promised to immediately cancel up to $10,000 per borrower.
“It’s holding people up. They’re in real trouble,” Biden said about student loans just a few weeks after winning the election. “They’re having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying the rent—those kinds of decisions. It should be done immediately.”
But for the past year, Biden has refused to use his executive power to wipe out the student debt that weighs on some 45 million Americans, despite increased pressure from the progressive wing of his party, as well as some establishment figures, like Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer. Instead, the administration has been kicking the issue back and forth with Congress, while misleading the public about whether the president even has the authority to act.
Recent polling shows that Biden’s support among young Americans has dropped significantly since the start of his tenure. According to The Economist’s analysis of polling conducted with YouGov in December, an average 29 percent of people under 30 approve of the job Biden is doing as president, compared with 50 percent who disapprove—the worst drop of any age group. About one-third of adults under 30 have outstanding student loan debt, according to the Pew Research Center. Student loan debt disproportionately weighs down people of color as well, particularly Black women, a voting bloc that was crucial to securing Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump.
Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Warren, applauded the administration’s recent decision to extend the pause on payments but insist that the Biden administration can and should go further. Unlike a number of other policy issues, student debt relief doesn’t need to be pushed through a narrowly controlled Congress. It can be addressed with the flick of Biden’s pen.
Schumer and Warren are still calling on Biden to cancel as much as $50,000 of federal student loan debt and have also cosponsored a bill to do so. During a CNN town hall earlier in the year, Biden made clear where he stands on this: “I will not make that happen,” he said of the senators’ demand. And when announcing the 90-day pause on student loan payments, Biden urged borrowers to “do their part as well” and use the time to prepare for payments to resume, including by looking “at options to lower your payments through income-based repayment plans.”
“If Congress sends him a bill, he’s happy to sign it,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a press conference in mid-December, dodging a question about Biden’s promise to cancel $10,000 per person. “They haven’t sent him a bill on that yet.”
Progressives like Ocasio-Cortez are warning that it’s “delusional” to believe Democrats can get reelected without taking action on student debt and other key campaign promises that remain unfulfilled. Representative Cori Bush of Missouri concurred, saying that “forcing millions to start paying student loans again” and “cutting off the Child Tax Credit at the start of an election year” is not “a winning strategy.”
“We’re warning you now, don’t point fingers in November,” Bush added.
In the meantime, groups like the Debt Collective are strategizing ways to escalate pressure on the Biden administration. Extending the pause on student loan payments was the “obvious sensible choice,” Brewington said, but without anything of the kind on the horizon, they’re going to use this time to step up their tactics. The debtors’ union is planning to hold in-person actions and protests in the coming months, but is also contemplating launching a possible debt strike. Biden may get his wish for borrowers to “do their part,” though not the part he expected.