November 19, 2020; Fox Business
On Wednesday, 238 nonprofits released an open letter to President-elect Joe Biden, urging him to cancel through executive order nearly $1.7 trillion in student loan debt immediately upon taking office.
The groups taking the lead on the effort included Americans for Financial Reform, the Center for Responsible Lending, Demos, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Student Borrower Protection Center. The measure is being proposed as a boost to the economy that will also address some of the racial disparities within it.
We, the 238 undersigned community, civil rights, climate, health, consumer, labor, and student advocacy organizations write to urge you to boost the economy, tackle racial disparities, and provide much-needed stimulus to help all Americans weather the pandemic and the associated recession by using executive authority to cancel federal student debt on Day One of your administration.
Before the COVID-19 public health crisis began, student debt was already a drag on the national economy, weighing heaviest on Black and Latinx communities, as well as women. That weight is likely to be exponentially magnified given the disproportionate toll that COVID-19 is taking on both the health and economic security of people of color and women. To minimize the harm to the next generation and help narrow the racial and gender wealth gaps, bold and immediate action is needed to protect student loan borrowers, including Parent PLUS borrowers, by cancelling existing debt.
There is growing energy and strong bipartisan public support for immediate broad-based debt cancellation. Such executive action is one of the few available tools that could immediately provide a boost to upwards of 44 million borrowers and the economy. Lawmakers and advocacy groups have introduced several proposals to provide various levels of student debt cancellation. In September, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a Senate resolution, joined by 12 other senators, to call on the next President to use executive action to cancel $50,000 in federal student loans for individual borrowers. The resolution highlights that the Higher Education Act empowers the Secretary of Education to cancel federal student debt administratively.
During the campaign, you endorsed $10,000 of relief while Congress negotiated the CARES Act, and subsequently promised to provide broad student debt cancellation “immediately” as a coronavirus response. Administrative debt cancellation will deliver real progress on your racial equity, economic recovery, and COVID-19 relief campaign priorities.
Student debt exacerbates existing racial inequities; cancellation will help reduce the racial wealth gap. The disproportionate impact of student debt on borrowers of color exacerbates existing systemic inequities and widens the racial wealth gap. Black Americans—and particularly Black women—are more likely to take on student loan debt and struggle with repayment. This burden is particularly acute for those Black students who are targeted by for-profit institutions, which also target veterans and often deliver poor instructional quality and outcomes at a high cost, causing a high proportion of students to drop out. Even for those students who do graduate, gainful employment in the field that they trained for is frequently elusive, leaving students with a lot of debt but not much to show for it. Student debt cancellation has the potential to increase the net wealth of Black households and could even help reduce the racial wealth gap.
Cancellation will provide a much-needed economic stimulus. Today’s graduates face a dual crisis: in addition to the ongoing stagnation of wages, the pandemic has impacted their ability to earn income. Students who graduate into a recession face a “scarring” effect on their entire careers, leading to permanently lower employment and earnings. Data from before the pandemic showed that when subtracting all of their debts from all of their assets, today’s young adults with college degrees and student debt were left with a median net wealth of -$1,900—a decline of approximately $9,000 from 2013. Student debt also impacts seniors, the nation’s fastest-growing group of student debtors. Thirty-seven percent of seniors with student loans are in default, and in 2015 alone, 40,000 borrowers over 65 had their Social Security garnished due to student loans. The mere presence of student debt on households’ balance sheets can make it harder or more expensive for families to get other types of credit and fully participate in the economy. Meanwhile, research shows that student debt cancellation catalyzes drastic, positive changes for borrowers, particularly for those not current on their loans. When borrowers’ student debt is cancelled, their ability to pay down other debts increases; their geographic mobility and ability to stay in rural communities improves, as do their opportunities to pursue better jobs.
Cancelling student debt would jumpstart small business formation at a time when tens of thousands of small businesses have closed. These small business closures have most affected Black and Latinx business owners. Student debt cancellation would boost GDP, create jobs, and reduce unemployment.
Federal student debt cancellation could have a positive impact on health outcomes. A growing body of research suggests that debt is linked to negative health outcomes and contributes to existing public health disparities. Debt is associated with negative mental and physical health outcomes such as stress, depression, worse self-reported general health, higher diastolic blood pressure, obesity, and even mortality. High blood pressure and obesity, in particular, are both mentioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as conditions that can increase the risk of severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19. Another study found a connection between debt and foregone medical care. Thus, broad-based student debt cancellation could have profound positive effects on health outcomes.
Cancelling student debt would disproportionately help borrowers of color, respond to the coronavirus crisis, and provide much needed economic relief and stimulus. We call on you to deliver on the promise of the Biden-Harris Racial Economic Equity plan by cancelling federal student debt by executive action on Day One of your administration.
Thank you for your leadership, and we look forward to working with you to address the critical issues facing our nation.
Although Biden has already said he supports an immediate reduction of student loan debt as he takes office, he has not yet indicated an openness to doing it through executive order. It’s possible he would wait to support its inclusion in some follow-up to the HEROES Act, which would forgive some portion of their debt.
“Biden-Harris can cancel billions of dollars in student loan debt, giving tens of millions of Americans an immediate financial boost and helping to close the racial wealth gap,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted last week. “This is the single most effective executive action available for a massive economic stimulus.”—Ruth McCambridge