Political pressure is mounting for president-elect Joe Biden to use executive authority to cancel federal student debt as a form of economic stimulus, a proposal that is exposing sharp divisions among economists, consumer activists and policy wonks.
On Wednesday, 238 nonprofit and community organizations — including the NAACP and American Federation of Teachers —urged Biden to take action on loan forgiveness on his first day in office. In a letter to Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris, the groups argue that using administrative debt cancellation will advance his campaign priorities of economic recovery, pandemic relief and racial equity.
"Before COVID-19 . . . student debt was already a drag on the national economy, weighing heaviest on Black and Latinx communities, as well as women," the groups wrote. "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."
Although the groups did not request a specific amount of relief, they noted that Biden proposed $10,000 of student debt forgiveness during the pandemic on the campaign trail and endorsed House legislation that called for the same.
Biden reiterated his support for the House provision on Monday, when he told reporters that it "should be done immediately." The incoming president said canceling at least a portion of the $1.6 trillion in student debt held by 44 million Americans is a part of his economic recovery plan. But he stopped short of committing to using his executive power.
Borrowers are "in real trouble," Biden said. "They're having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying their rent."
Biden is being pushed by some Democratic leaders to adopt a proposal from Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to forgive up to $50,000 in education debt, which would cost an estimated $1 trillion. Ahead of Election Day, Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said Biden could execute the plan "with the pen as opposed to legislation."
And in an op-ed in The Washington Post last week, Warren called the cancellation of billions of dollars in student debt "the single most effective executive action available to provide massive consumer-driver stimulus."
After months of watching debt cancellation proposals pared down as congressional Democrats try to broker a second round of stimulus with Republicans, progressives say executive action is the best route. But while progressives coalesce around some form of debt cancellation, the matter is far from settled among centrists and some higher-education experts.
Tensions erupted over the weekend after Jason Furman, a former chief economist to President Barack Obama, tweeted that any debt relief would be subject to taxation, undermining the benefit to borrowers and ultimately the economy.
But some tax policy experts, including Georgetown University Law professor John Brooks, contend that if the debt forgiveness is due to the coronavirus, it would be treated as a disaster relief payment that is not subject to taxation.
Furman later said that regardless of the tax treatment, student debt relief would still produce nominal economic stimulus. "Give someone $10 a year for 10 years and they won't spend $100 more today," Furman tweeted. "This is not the only consideration, but much of the advocacy I had seen was arguing this would help the economy. I see very little aggregate help from it."
Moreover, if the alternative is delaying interest payments then the net benefit of the debt forgiveness is even smaller.— Jason Furman (@jasonfurman) November 16, 2020
This is not the only consideration, but much of the advocacy I had seen was arguing this would help the economy. I see very little aggregate help from it.
In Wednesday's letter to Biden, advocates said research shows that when student loans are erased, people's ability to pay down their other debts increases as do their opportunities to pursue better jobs.
But opponents of cancellation, including American Enterprise Institute fellow Jason Delisle, say it would unfairly and disproportionately benefit high-income borrowers, who tend to hold the largest amount of debt from graduate programs.
Critics of this argument say it ignores the racial complexities of education debt. Racial wealth disparities have resulted in Black students borrowing at higher levels throughout their education and struggling more than others to repay their loans. Columbia University professor Judith Scott-Clayton notes that nearly half of Black borrowers were experiencing defaults within 12 years of starting college before the pandemic.
Forgiveness of some form could address that inequity, as well as the concentrated defaults among borrowers with small amounts of debt, experts say.
Economist Adam Looney noted in an op-ed in The Post on Tuesday that canceling $10,000 could "eliminate debt for the 15 million borrowers with smaller balances who, paradoxically, tend to struggle most, accounting for about 60% of all defaults." Studies have shown that people who default on their student debt often owe small amounts primarily because they dropped out of college.
The pressure for Biden to act on debt forgiveness will only mount as the pandemic continues to spawn economic uncertainty and strain the household budgets of millions of Americans.
"With so much at stake, this is the most urgent opportunity to help the country heal from the health crisis, heal from economic harm, and heal from the history of racial disparities," said Natalia Abrams, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Student Debt Crisis, a party to Wednesday's letter. "Joe Biden can, and must, use the remedy of student debt cancellation to address these pressing issues."
This article was written by Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, a reporter for The Washington Post.