Mere days before federal student loan payments were set to resume, President Biden announced his plan for student debt cancellation: up to $10,000 for borrowers with incomes under $125,000 a year and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.
Many progressives have rightly criticized the limitations of Biden’s announcement. Rebecca Mosier, a 54-year-old from Oklahoma with $127,000 in student debt, described the plan as “a one percent off coupon,” or akin to when customers at the Sonic Drive-In where she worked would leave a handful of pennies in the tip jar. Biden’s relief also does little to address the racial wealth gap trapped inside of student debt. It still leaves millions of borrowers with six-figure balances and does little to address predatory lending terms that have swollen debts across generations. We can expect student debt to continue to plague senior citizens present and future.
The grumblers aren’t wrong. But the fact that progressives are complaining at all is a testament to how far the movement to cancel student debt has come. Our expectations have been raised.
Let’s be clear: Biden did not want to grant debt relief to borrowers. As a senator, he spent his career defending creditors and restricting relief options for student debtors. If Biden had wanted to cancel student debt, he would have done it two years ago. If Biden had wanted to cancel student debt, he would have followed through on his campaign promise to cancel a minimum of $10,000 of it for everyone—and all undergraduate student debt for public college and HBCU graduates. If Biden had really wanted to cancel student debt, he would have enacted a different policy. Biden didn’t want to cancel student debt. But organized debtors made him do it anyway.
Since Biden took office, organized debtors have pressed him to make good on his campaign promise. Defying the silence, shame, and atomization that characterize indebted life, debtors have come together and spoken up. They have assembled at city councils, union halls, and faculty senates throughout the country and passed resolutions calling for full cancellation. They have written op-eds. They have signed petitions, sent letters to Congress, called their senators. They have marched around the Department of Education building blowing trumpets, calling for the walls of debt to fall. They have piled into buses from the valleys of Georgia to remind President Biden of a critical truth: As the midterms near, the fate of our democracy rests in large part on the president’s willingness to move the dial on debt cancellation. They have pledged to go on a debt strike when their payments turn back on, warning Biden that they can’t pay their student loans—and they won’t pay them.
There is no going back. Now that the president has canceled student debt once, he can do it again. Seasoned labor organizers often say that the best organizer is a bad boss. For debtors, perhaps the best organizer is a debt that could be abolished—but still hasn’t been. The critical omissions of Biden’s policy point to where the movement—and the country—need to go next.
Because the goal isn’t just to cancel debt. The goal is free higher education for all who want it. Just three years ago, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal proposed a bill calling for full cancellation of student debt and free public college for anyone with a family income less than $125,000 a year. That bill did not pass. Biden’s skimpy plan hits none of the 2019 plan’s transformative notes. But the College for All Act has not been forsaken. Each barrier the movement has encountered has offered an indicator of where and how power can be built. When Congress failed to take up their vision, debtors shifted to what can be accomplished with the president’s pen.
And if the president’s pen fails to provide the cancellation debtors need, they will organize to win it. An application to receive relief? An opportunity to form solidarity to collectively complete the paperwork. An end to the payment pause? More ammunition to build a loan strike. Federal guarantees to loan servicing companies? A chance to highlight their obscene profits.
For the movement, Biden’s cancellation is the confirmation of a method: Debtors, when organized, have power. They will continue organizing to use it—for as long as it takes.