Biden’s student loan forgiveness program in jeopardy

Conservative lawmakers in the US have presented new legal challenges to the program, which will potentially impact 43 million people

February 07, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
According to a 2022 Data for Progress study, 60% of people in the US support the government eliminating all or some student loan debt. (Photo: Mike Ferguson/AAUP)

On Friday, February 3, 128 Republican lawmakers in the US House of Representatives, and most Senate Republicans, filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court, opposing President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. Biden’s program, announced August 24 of last year, would have forgiven up to USD$20,000 in federal student loans for the most low-income borrowers, and USD$10,000 for those earning less than USD$125,000 per year. This would have affected about 43 million people and forgiven around USD$1.6 trillion in student loan debt.

Many believed that this was only a band-aid on a massive issue, as the average US household with student debt owes USD$58,238. However, even this band-aid measure was never implemented. The plan has been repeatedly halted by conservative-led legal challenges, and has now found its way to the Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide the program’s fate only as late as June 2023. The amicus briefs filed by Republicans on Friday are meant to bolster the argument against Biden’s program in court.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, President Donald Trump put a moratorium in place on federal student debt repayments, which has been extended periodically ever since. This moratorium will be in place until 60 days after the Supreme Court makes a decision on Biden’s loan forgiveness program or until 60 days after June 30—whichever comes sooner. Most student debt, 92% of it, is composed of federal (government-owned) student loans, while only 7.89% of student loans are privately-owned.

Who decides “the will of the American people”?

Two House Republicans are leading the charge in filing the amicus briefs: Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina and Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina. Both claim that Biden’s program is an overreach of executive power and “undermines the will of the American people,” in Duncan’s words. Foxx wrote in a statement, “it is ludicrous for President Biden to assume he can simply bypass the will of the American people.” Congressional Republicans are arguing that decisions on student loan forgiveness need to be decided by Congress, not the President.

However, contrary to being against the “will of the American people,” student loan forgiveness as a concept enjoys majority popularity in the United States. According to a 2022 Data for Progress study, 60% support the government eliminating all or some student loan debt. A 2022 Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 64% of people in the US support some form of student debt forgiveness. 

A 2022 Economist/YouGov poll found that every single aspect of Biden’s program enjoyed not overwhelming, but majority support. A Quinnipiac poll from the same year found that 51% of those surveyed supported Biden’s plan. Biden’s program is most popular amongst those disproportionately affected by the issue of student debt: women, and Latino and Black people.

The fate of Biden’s student debt relief program is now set to be decided by the Supreme Court, an un-elected body that is not unaccountable to the public, whose members serve for life, and not by “the people.”

An “injustice” against taxpayers

In January, Foxx told ABC News that it was an “injustice” that Biden’s program would be funded by money from taxpayers. According to the US Department of Education, the ten-year cost of the program will be around $305 billion. The projected costs of the forgiveness plan have been the subject of much hand-wringing by Republicans. On December 5, 2022, the House Committee on Education and Workforce, of which Foxx is the chairwoman, wrote, “There is an untold amount about to be billed to the American people…The Biden administration is after mass student loan cancelation and wants to use your money to pay for it.”

At the same time, the United States spends the most money on its military in the world by far, and just recently passed an annual $858 billion defense budget in December of 2022. Both Duncan and Foxx voted yes on this bill, alongside the vast majority of the House of Representatives. The original cost of former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts on the wealthy, a plan which did not in fact “pay for itself” as claimed by Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, amounted to at least $1.5 trillion being added to the national deficit. This cost may rise to $2.3 trillion if the cuts are made permanent. Duncan and Foxx also voted yes on these tax cuts, alongside all but 13 Republicans.

Income lags behind ever-growing prices

45 million people in the US have student debt—around one in five people. Although younger people, from after 25 to 34, are more likely to have student debt, those between the ages of 35 to 49 owe the most debt at $600 million. As the amount borrowed correlates with how much one can afford to pay upfront, socioeconomic factors have an impact on indebtedness. Women usually borrow more money than men, and Black people borrow more money and more frequently than people of other races. 24% of Black adults have federal student loan debt according to a CNBC survey, compared to 15% of Latino adults, 11% of Asian adults, and 14% of whites. According to this same survey, 19% of women have student loan debt compared to 11% of men. These disparities reflect the unequal distribution of capital across genders and racial groups, such as the growing Black–white racial wealth gap. 

Those who go into some of the most socially necessary fields, such as medicine, end up paying a steeper price. While the average Bachelor’s (four year) degree debt is $28,400, the average medical school debt is $203,062, according to a 2022 household debt study. According to the Education Data Initiative, medical school tuition has increased at more than twice the rate of inflation in the past 22 years—increasing 91% after adjusting for inflation. $2,800 is the cost of application fees alone. Those who study medicine must go through more years of schooling, and then start multi-year-long residency programs, which are often underpaid

Debt drives military recruitment

Joining the military is one of the central ways that working class people can access higher learning and avoid racking up student loan debt. Many argue that this is a key factor in why conservatives block attempts at debt relief. The day after Biden first announced his forgiveness program, Republican representative Jim Banks tweeted in opposition: “Student loan forgiveness undermines one of our military’s greatest recruitment tools at a time of dangerously low enlistments.”

The people of the US pay a high price for attempting to circumvent student debt by enlisting in military service: since the September 11, 2001 attacks marked an increase in militarization nationwide, most who serve in the military die by suicide, not by combat.

With an ultraconservative Supreme Court, which has already struck down existing federal abortion rights for millions of women last year, there is a big possibility that Biden’s student loans program will also be eliminated by the Court. 

This leaves many waiting for when federal student loan payments will finally resume this summer. Working class people in the US are already financially insecure. The average cost of living in the US has jumped 8% in the past year, while median household income has only grown by 4%. According to a 2022 survey, almost half of employed people in the US say that their income over the past 12 months did not adequately keep up with inflation, and 69% have financial concerns for the next 12 months. This is while, over the past few decades, the cost of higher education has risen faster than both inflation and family incomes, and public, more affordable college options nationwide have been defunded.

At the same time, there are many who are organizing to end the burden of student loans. This includes the Debt Collective, which aims to organize student loan borrowers into “the nation’s first debtor’s union.” The Collective will soon join other organizations including the American Federation of Teachers and the NAACP in rallying in front of the Supreme Court.