Student debt cancellation is a moral issue for millions. It’s also good midterm politics.
By Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez
Luis has a story that should be celebrated in America in 2022. He’s the son of immigrants, a first-generation American who put himself through college and grad school and now works at a nonprofit in San Antonio. He’s building a life for himself, while also supporting aging family members at home.
But his success story has an all-too-common complication: $68,000 in student loan debt. Luis’s two degrees helped him land a job he loves, but his monthly payments eat up about half his paycheck. Between paying down the debt and supporting his family, it’s all but impossible to save for his own future.
“My family is low-income, and I’ve spent my entire 20s taking care of them,” Luis, 26, said. “My loans have been a financial threat to me, making it so much harder to fulfill my obligations to my family and myself.”
This is the reality of the student debt crisis. Americans today enter adulthood confronted with a distinctly un-American catch-22: the best way to get ahead is to go to college, but going to college requires taking on debts that will weigh them down for decades to come. This catastrophe has created entire generations unable to buy homes and unsure about starting families. It’s deeply unfair and deeply dysfunctional — as morally indefensible as it is economically disastrous.
Luis shared his story with NextGen America, the organization I lead, when we sent out a call online for young people’s personal experience with student debt. He’s one of more than 43 million Americans who collectively owe nearly $1.7 trillion.
We hear stories like Luis’s in nearly every interaction we have with young voters these days — from in-person voter registration to online issue advocacy to our polling and research work. NextGen recently polled young people from all across the country, and we were struck by how passionate, knowledgeable and angry participants are about student debt.
Young Americans feel the burden of student debt, they see how it’s holding them back and they believe they deserve relief.
And — this is key — they know President Biden made a promise to deliver that relief.
One clear, unmistakable conclusion we’ve drawn from months of listening to young people and working to engage them in our democracy is that Biden has the power to cancel tens of thousands of dollars in student debt for those carrying it— and he should.
President Biden must cancel student debt to boost our economy, to ensure real opportunity for millions of struggling Americans and, critically, to rebuild trust among the largest and most diverse generation in American history.
Biden’s continuation of the student loan payment pause has provided a critical lifeline throughout the pandemic — Luis, for one, was able to bolster his savings account and buy a car with the breathing room it afforded. But that relief is temporary, as the looming August 31 expiration makes clear.
Even as the pandemic ends, the debt crisis will go on until President Biden signs an executive order enacting broad, permanent cancellation.
We received another story in response to our call, from Kimeka, a health-center director in Harrisburg, Pa. Kimeka earned her Ph.D. in 2014, but left school with more than $100,000 in loans. Despite monthly payments the size of a home mortgage, she doesn’t believe she’ll see these debts paid off in her lifetime.
A study from the Roosevelt Institute underscores the importance of cancellation for women and people of color like Kimeka. $50,000 in debt cancellation, the study found, would not only provide more benefits to those with fewer economic resources but also play a critical role in addressing the racial wealth gap. Roughly 85 percent of Black bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with loan debt, and women hold nearly two-thirds of overall student loan debt.
The student debt crisis has contributed to the vicious cycle of inequality in Black and brown neighborhoods, with lasting, generational impacts. Reducing the debt burden for people of color and women would immediately create a more level economic playing field and allow for greater gains in the future.
Canceling student debt is a moral issue and an economic one. It’s a matter of racial justice. It’s also, it must be said, a matter of electoral politics. The midterms are coming, and President Biden and his party are facing a distinct deficit of voter enthusiasm. They’ll get no help from a dysfunctional Congress unable to pass even the most obvious and popular legislation.
Debt cancellation offers an unequivocal political win: it’s a popular policy action that addresses real economic need, while keeping a key campaign promise to a critical voting bloc — and which can be achieved unilaterally through an executive order.
For Luis, for Kimeka, for 43 million struggling Americans, President Biden must do it.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is the president and executive director of NextGen America.