Advocacy groups to Biden: Address equity, cancel student debt

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The AFT has joined more than 325 organizations formally urging President-elect Joe Biden to cancel federal student debt on day one of his administration. In a letter addressed to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the community, civil rights, climate, health, consumer, labor and student advocacy groups note the coronavirus pandemic has magnified racial and gender disparities in many arenas, including student debt. Great strides could be made toward equity, justice and a healthier economy if student debt were canceled, they write.

Joe Biden & Randi Weingarten

“Before the COVID-19 public health crisis began, student debt was already a drag on the national economy, weighing heaviest on Black and Latinx communities, as well as women,” the letter states. “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 to protect student loan borrowers, including Parent PLUS borrowers, by cancelling existing debt.”

The letter notes there is “growing energy and strong bipartisan public support for immediate broad-based debt cancellation,” and points to executive action as one of the few ways to accomplish that quickly. It was signed by, among others, the Education Trust, the Hispanic Federation, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Women’s Law Center, the American Psychological Association, the Children’s Defense Fund, and numerous unions including the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

Last fall, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 12 other senators proposed that the next president use an executive order to cancel $50,000 in federal student loans for individual borrowers. During the campaign, Biden himself talked about immediately canceling $10,000 in student debt as part of COVID-19 relief, though thus far he has not committed to using an executive order to accomplish that and is instead looking to Congress. Meanwhile, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ outgoing administration is trying to block any executive order that would cancel student debt: In a memo dated Jan. 13, officials questioned the legality of that route to student debt relief.

“The health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have not only upended our economy and sent millions into unemployment, but shined a bright light on the massive racial disparities among student loan borrowers,” said Remington A. Gregg, counsel for civil justice and consumer rights at Public Citizen, noting that Black borrowers hold double the amount of debt as white borrowers four years after graduation, and default on their loans at double the rate of their white peers. “Cancelling student debt would be a massive economic stimulus to the economy and start to right the undeniable systemic inequalities in American society that make it hard for borrowers of color to climb the economic ladder,” he said, in a press release from Americans for Financial Reform.

“At a moment when student borrowers are facing deep economic hardship, the impact of student debt cancellation will be far-reaching,” said Amalia Chamorro, associate director of education at UnidoUS. “It will not only allow Latino borrowers a new financial start but address the racial wealth gap that so often prevents Latinos from moving up the economic ladder.”  

“We cannot wait a second longer for debt relief when we know the president has the authority to cancel student debt on day one,” said Natalia Abrams, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Student Debt Crisis. “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. Joe Biden can, and must, use the remedy of student debt cancellation to address these pressing issues.”

[Virginia Myers]