Student-loan debt is an enormous, damaging problem in the U.S. The data is staggering: 40 million people are in the hole for $1.6 trillion. Loans are so massive and incongruous with what college graduates actually make that repayment plans stretch into adulthood and beyond. Three million senior citizens are still paying them off. Student-loan debt follows people through life, making it hard for them to buy homes and cars and to start businesses. For people of color, it has helped contribute to the racial wealth gap by keeping families from holding on to their money. Joe Biden knows this. He campaigned on canceling “at least” $10,000 worth of debt for borrowers as soon as he got into office, and on canceling debt totally for borrowers at historic Black colleges and universities — but now that he is actually in the executive seat, Biden is dashing hopes that he will enact the policies that will truly fix the issue.
Leaders in Biden’s own party have come up with a plan for him to immediately cancel $50,000 in debt for every student who’s taken out loans in America. Last week, he shut it down dismissively in a town hall — “I will not be doing that,” he said simply — infuriating those who’d voted for him believing he’d provide much-needed relief. Biden implied that canceling $50,000 would benefit the elite and claimed he doesn’t have the constitutional authority to cancel that much anyway. He repeated his willingness to cancel $10,000, though the average borrower is out more than three times that amount. Activists say this is a wholly arbitrary line in the sand: “This is a very cynical thing,” says Astra Taylor, an author and documentary filmmaker who co-founded the Debt Collective, a union of debtors who are on debt strike for the first 100 days of the Biden administration.
At least one politician is refusing to take Biden’s compromise lying down: Kendra Brooks, a city-council member from Philadelphia, which helped carry Biden into office and where nearly one in four adults carry student-loan debt. Today, in partnership with the Debt Collective, Brooks introduced a resolution that goes even further than cancellation of $50,000, calling on Biden to cancel all debt. In a Zoom interview with the Cut, Brooks and Taylor pushed back on Biden’s talking points and explained why debt cancellation is actually common-sense policy.
Biden said that he doesn’t want to cancel up to $50,000 because he doesn’t want money to go to debtors who went to “Harvard and Yale and Penn.” People were upset that this statement implies only privileged people go to elite schools, or that those people who do take out loans to go to schools like Harvard don’t deserve to get help with their debt.
Kendra Brooks: This is just a misconception meant to deter folks from supporting a benefit that can help so many people get out of long-term, sustaining debt — debt that people like myself hold. It’s important that we continue to refocus this conversation back on working-class folks. One of the fastest-growing demographics of people getting college degrees is Black women; when you translate that into student debt, the Black women carrying it are still getting jobs that don’t allow for them to pay it back. The divide-and-conquer tactic is a way to silence certain voices.
Astra Taylor: There are so many myths to debunk. Kendra is absolutely right — statistics show that the population most burdened by student debt is Black women. It’s one thing for somebody who’s just an average citizen to think, “Oh, don’t people who go to Harvard pay a lot?” But for policy-makers, for Biden to be invoking this — he knows it’s not true. The data is so clear that full student-debt cancellation will help working-class people. We should not be determining our policy by this cliché, the stereotype of Harvard graduates — 20,000 undergrads go to Harvard. There are 20 million undergrads. And only 2 or 3 percent of those Harvard grads graduate with student debt. It makes no sense that these are the people we’re shaping policy around.
What about the idea that he has congressional authority to cancel up to $10,000, but not $50,000?
Taylor: He has the authority, and there’s no limit, whether $10,000 or $50,000. These are arbitrary limits. Congress already granted the authority to the Department of Education secretary in the Higher Education Act of 1965, and legal experts are very clear on this. I point people to Eileen Connor, I point people to Luke Herrine. Obviously, Senators Warren and Schumer [who introduced the plan to cancel $50,000] agree.
Again, this is a very cynical thing for the president of the United States to stand up there and cast aspersions on his own power. The fact is, he doesn’t want that power. He wishes he didn’t have it. He’d like to be able to say, “Oh, sorry, I’m not delivering on my promises, and it’s because of Congress, it’s because of the Republicans,” but this one’s actually on him. He can do this. And so if he doesn’t, it’s a choice. Canceling student debt is a winning issue. It’s popular with one in five Trump voters. Forty percent of Black voters said they would consider sitting out the next election if he doesn’t cancel it. He’s promised an FDR-style presidency. He needs to deliver it.
So where is this reluctance coming from? Why is Biden willing to forgive a small amount, but not more than that?
Taylor: Joe Biden would never have even run on $10,000 of cancellation if he hadn’t been pushed. This is a demand that has come from social movements. This is a president who made his name as the senator from Delaware, the credit-card capital of the world. The legislation he fought the hardest for was the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform bill, which made it harder for student debtors who had private loans to have bankruptcy protections. He’s been a friend of creditors his whole life.
The $10,000 is not based on anything rational — his campaign can’t defend it. When they’re asked why $10,000, they don’t even have an argument. The $10,000 is kind of like them saying, “We know this is a problem. We need to do something, but we just don’t have the courage to actually criticize the system that we helped create.”
Brooks: When I think about this $10,000 limit, I always wonder, now that I am in politics, what is the behind-the-scenes conversation that is driving that narrative? I do think [Biden] sees the moral ground of debt forgiveness, but the political will and moral ground is an interesting needle to thread. When people say to me, “Do you take a certain type of money?” I’m always like, “No!” Because I don’t ever want to be put in that position to have to make a choice of my conscience. Once you’ve already stepped in that world, it’s very hard to peddle back.
In November we took to the streets, you know, Black women for Biden. We weren’t excited about you, but we pulled you along and pushed you across the finish line. Now it’s like: What are you going to do to make our lives better? When are you going to do the things that you said you were going to do to make life better for women in Philly, Detroit, Atlanta, all of us that showed out and made sure you came across the finish line?
For the Debt Collective and others, even $50,000 is not enough. Why do you support debt jubilee over debt forgiveness?
Taylor: We don’t like the word forgiveness because we don’t think student debtors did anything wrong. Joe Biden got up there at his town hall and was like, “I mortgaged my house and my kids took on debt” [to pay for their college educations]. Well, Joe Biden, you didn’t go into debt for college! Your generation didn’t have to borrow like this. We’re just asking for parity. I looked [it] up — he paid something like $1,000 to go to law school. So this really isn’t such a radical demand. The guy actually lived it himself.
The scholars who came up with $50,000 three years ago, by the way, they are now saying $75,000 because that’s how much the debt has grown in three years. Derrick Hamilton, the leading scholar on the racial wealth gap, says cancel it all. If you want to have the maximum impact in terms of racial justice, then cancel it all. Part of this is just admitting the system’s broken. Why give people $0 income-based repayment [a plan offered by the government that essentially admits that a borrower will never pay their debt back] for the rest of their lives, where this debt’s just hanging over them, and not just say “Fuck it, we’ll cancel it now”? It just makes more sense.
Brooks: And Biden saying he had to mortgage his house to pay his children’s debt — we’re talking about Black women who can’t even buy a house because of student-loan debt. I was unable to find a job with comparable pay for two years, and I ended up losing everything, including my house. And my daughter had to leave Norfolk State and come home because I couldn’t afford her college tuition. She ended up going into the military to cover her student-loan debt. And that’s not an uncommon story. It’s so off-base and kind of out of touch with the reality of so many people; most parents can’t just mortgage off their house to pay student-loan debt — are you kidding me? I’m still paying my own student-loan debt!
The resolution Councilmember Brooks introduced calls on the federal government to “enact a plan by the end of President Biden’s first 100 days in office to cancel all student loan debt and begin the transition to education as a public good.” Even if Biden remains unwilling to cancel more than $10,000, what do you hope the resolution will accomplish?
Brooks: The resolution strengthens the conversation and the movement around student debt. There is debt shame and stigma that people do not talk about, especially when we’re talking about upwardly mobile Black professionals who are swimming in student loans; no one would dare talk about it openly. Introducing this in city council along with my colleagues gives voice to the folks who wouldn’t necessarily speak up against this.
I think we’re going to pass the resolution. And debt cancellation in general is going to be a major movement. In Texas, people are rejecting their utility bills. In Philly, they want payment plans for rent, for medical debt. Yeah. In general, this is going to be a larger conversation in order for our economy to recover.
Taylor: I think other cities are going to copy this resolution and follow the councilwoman’s lead. It’s so symbolically important, because the divide-and-conquer tactic is all about making this an individual issue. What about this kind of debt or that kind of debt? Did you make the right choice? For this resolution to say, “This benefits Philadelphia, a community. It would be hugely important to the people who live here” — it’s just so important to give this institutional frame. When you see 45 million people have student debt and are struggling, that’s a sign that it’s a structural issue, it’s an institutional issue.