On Saturday, Democratic presidential candidate and California senator Kamala Harris unveiled a student-debt-forgiveness plan with almost risibly narrow parameters: It would apply to “Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities.”
This list of caveats quickly became the stuff of memes. With other student-debt-relief programs from 2020 candidates focused on blanket debt cancellation in the trillions — namely those from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — the specificity of Harris’s proposal felt like it could be a joke. Pell Grants, federal college financing for the poorest students in the country that do not have to be paid back, are most often received with a myriad of additional loans that do. Twenty-five percent of Pell Grant recipients are black.
By the next day, Harris had responded to the backlash. “I want to thank everyone for your feedback and clarify some confusion,” she wrote in another tweet. “We have an opportunity gap in our country, and one thing we need to do is support Black entrepreneurs. I have a plan to do that on multiple fronts.” (Indeed, Harris’s student-debt-relief proposal is part of a larger plan focused on increasing opportunities for black students in the STEM disciplines, and on investing in black entrepreneurship, with a $12 billion capital grant program.)
Amid the meme-ing and damage control from the Harris camp, I wanted to find just one person who would qualify for the $20,000 Harris promised — how many Americans could check all three boxes? A campaign spokesperson estimated that the number would be around 17,500 entrepreneurs annually, or just .04 percent of the 45 million Americans who have student-loan debt.
I was able to track down two whole women who would theoretically qualify for that minute fraction of people paying off student loans. One, Maya Contreras, co-founded a nonprofit think tank called All Women’s Progress in New York; the other, Christie Chirinos, started Caldera Labs, a software development company in Pittsburgh. Their reactions reflect warring opinions on how a candidate like Harris plans to address inequality while avoiding universal programs.
“I was thrilled because I knew Kamala was talking about someone like me,” Contreras, a black woman, said of the proposal. “Kamala is showing a deep interest in how we help the most marginalized first … Do I think these debt-relief policies go far enough? No. Do I think there will be such a proposal from Kamala in the near future? Yes.”
Chirinos, conversely, found the proposal “shockingly unfair to low-income people.” “The cards are already staggeringly stacked against a Pell Grant recipient,” she told the Cut. “Most people like me don’t start businesses.” Chirinos actually asked to be bought out of her own company before three years, she says, because of the difficulties of being a low-income business owner. “I couldn’t run my business in the way that someone of a more privileged background often can.”
$20,000 would cancel about 30 percent of Chirinos’s student-loan debt, she added. But with the “emotional toll” of the work it took to actually qualify for the amount, “it kind of feels like a slap in the face.”
Chirinos’s reaction speaks to some of the larger issues that plague Harris as a candidate: confused messaging and a muddled progressive vision. On her short “Debt-Free College and Student Debt” campaign page, Harris says she wants to “provide relief from crushing debt today,” but only lists piecemeal efforts like refinancing options and cracking down on for-profit lenders. In that context, the one forgiveness-style plan she’s announced seems even more out of step with her opponents. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to cancel 95 percent of student debt includes an additional $100 billion in Pell Grants and forming a $50 billion fund for HBCUs.
If Harris wants to distinguish herself, and not for a meme-able proposal, she’ll have to reveal a robust idea for tackling student debt soon. So far, that seems unlikely: In an interview today with the New York Times, Harris recalled trying to secure debt forgiveness for students as an attorney general. “Has anyone looked on the website to see exactly how these students are going to get it?” she remembered asking. “And then you start looking at it and navigating it, and it’s literally like, How’s this going to work?” I have the same questions.