As the nation waits for congressional lawmakers to reach a resolution on a second stimulus bill—nine months after the coronavirus pandemic began disrupting the lives of Americans around the country—a group of Black female House Democrats is challenging President-elect Joe Biden to offer more substantial relief to student loan borrowers.
The charge comes in the form of a resolution, introduced by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alma Adams (D-NC) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), reports Vox. The resolution calls for the incoming Biden administration to take a more aggressive stance on cutting student loan debt by forgiving up to $50,000 in federal debt for student borrowers. A companion piece to a Senate resolution put forward by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) earlier this year, the resolution makes the case that student debt forgiveness is a critical tool in tackling racial inequality.
“The student debt crisis is a racial and economic justice issue and we must finally begin to address it as such,” Pressley said in a statement. “Broad-based student debt cancellation is precisely the kind of bold, high-impact policy that the broad and diverse coalition that elected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris expect them to deliver.”
Pressley argued that canceling student debt is “one of the most effective ways to provide direct relief to millions, help reduce the racial wealth gap, stimulate our economy, and begin to deliver an equitable and just recovery.”
Waters, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, echoed the need for debt forgiveness amid a pandemic and a lagging economy that has seen massive job losses.
“I cannot overstate the importance of this resolution and the need for the Biden Administration to take bold action and deliver on this mandate from the people on day one,” said Waters.
As The Root has reported over the years, student loan debt disproportionately affects African American borrowers. The reasons are myriad: A 2016 Atlantic article found Black grads had less debt compared to their non-Black peers shortly after receiving their undergraduate diplomas. However, their debt ballooned in the years after. Four years after graduating, Black grads saw nearly double the amount of debt of white, Asian and Latinx students.
This is in part because more Black graduates continue their studies after receiving their bachelor’s degree, and because they have a higher rate of attending predatory for-profit institutions, which put them further in debt without actually advancing their employment options. Graduates of historically Black colleges and universities have also been found to accrue higher debt burdens than those who do not attend HBCUs.
Undergirding all of this is an increasingly disparate racial wealth gap, made possible in part by what National Employment Law Project Director Rebecca Dixon describes to The Root as a “Jim Crow job market,” in which Black workers disproportionately work lower-wage jobs than their white counterparts and—particularly for Black women—are paid less than their peers in those professions.
“Student debt cancellation would be a massive economic stimulus at a time when people desperately need it. It’s also a racial equity issue. Students of color are more likely to take out federal student loans, and face higher rates of default,” pointed out Rep. Omar, who worked with Pressley earlier this on a plan to drastically reduce student debt.
“Over 90 percent of student debt is held by the federal government, which President-elect Joe Biden can cancel with the stroke of a pen,” said Omar.
As Vox notes, Biden has supported legislation to cancel $10,000 in federal student loan debt, but lawmakers and activists who helped put him in office are urging the president-elect to forgive greater amounts of student debt—if not canceling it entirely.
Those who oppose student debt forgiveness say such a policy wouldn’t actually help the people who most need it, citing that much of America’s student loan debt is held by households with graduate degrees, as the Brookings Institution found. Policy experts also note that student loan forgiveness alone cannot fix wealth and educational inequity, but must be coupled with larger changes to higher education in order to prevent upcoming graduates from sliding back into debt again.
But those reasons are not enough to deny debt relief to millions of Americans who desperately need it, say proponents of student debt forgiveness. Rep. Adams pointed out that this debt has stymied the purchasing power and mobility of many Americans.
“These loans are holding American families back from buying houses, cars, and opening small businesses,” she continued. “Student loan debt prevents young families from building and creating wealth that they can pass down to their children and grandchildren—a freedom that historically has been denied to Black Americans in this country.”