By Benjamin Kail | April 1, 2021
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Thursday renewed pressure on President Joe Biden to provide sweeping relief to millions of Americans and narrow the racial wealth gap by canceling up to $50,000 in borrowers’ federal student loan debt.
In a news conference in Healey’s office in Boston, the women also called for overhauls to a student loan system that they argued leaves behind too many American workers — particularly in communities of color — who face rising bills during the COVID-19 pandemic even if they did not graduate college.
“Canceling $50,000 in student loan debt is a matter of racial justice, economic justice and generational justice,” said Warren, who reintroduced the Higher Education Act and made the same request of Biden in February along with Pressley and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the administration would expand a pause on student loan interest and collections for more than 1 million borrowers in default. When it comes to canceling debt, however, the president urged Congress to approve legislation canceling up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt.
“That’s something Congress could take an action on and he’d be happy to sign,” Psaki said.
But the ongoing pressure from the Massachusetts lawmakers and advocates may have had an impact.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain mentioned during a Politico Playbook event Thursday that Biden has tasked Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to examine avenues for broader debt relief, up to $50,000 per borrower, according to Forbes.
Pressley, informed of Biden’s consideration of the matter during Thursday’s news conference, said it was a positive development if accurate. She called on Biden to “do right by the movement that elected him.”
The congresswoman said 85% of Black students have no choice but to take out student loans and are almost twice as likely to default — in large part due to “intentional policy violence” of the past such as redlining, which blocked minority communities from housing, services and opportunities for economic growth.
In Massachusetts alone, more than 855,000 student borrowers owe an average of $39,000 in student loan debt, Pressley noted. “People are still expected to pay student loan debt that’s the equivalent of a mortgage … in the midst of a global pandemic,” she said. “This is about investing in the people.”
Pressley also countered the notion that broad slashing of student loan debt largely benefits wealthy students and families. She noted that the fastest-growing group of those paying off student loans are over the age of 50, with some in her district in their 70s still trying to close out the debt.
In a February virtual town hall, Warren said the move would serve as an investment “in the future” at a time when Americans are suffering through the pandemic.
She noted that about 40% of those with student loan debt don’t have a college degree for a variety of reasons, whether economic or family-related, challenging commutes or affordability.
She added that two out of every three graduates of state schools “end up with student loan debt because they just can’t make it. Our state schools don’t get enough taxpayer support so people can graduate without debt.”
Healey argued the student loan system is “fundamentally broken,” noting a dedicated unit in her office regularly takes calls to assist borrowers grappling with scams, billing disputes and finding income-driven repayment plans.
She cited one public school teacher who years ago took out $90,000 in a Parent PLUS loan to help her daughter go to college. The payments were unaffordable “from the start,” Healey said, so the teacher was granted “repeated forbearances.” The woman now owes more than $176,000, and her daughter later joined the U.S. Army to help pay off loans that had defaulted, damaging her credit.
This cycle happens far too often, Healey said, for Americans trying to enter some form of public service.
“People are doing the right thing and trying to pursue their education, but unfortunately the system isn’t set up to work for them,” she said.
More than 40 million Americans are “buried under $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt,” Pressley’s office said in February.
At least 329 organizations
, including the NAACP, American Federation of Teachers, Minority Veterans of America, National Women’s Law Center, the Sunrise Movement and others urged the Biden-Harris administration to take early executive action to cancel student loan debt.
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