During the election campaign, Biden was a strong advocate for student debt cancellation. In April 2020, he even pledged to cancel at least $10,000 in debt per person upon taking office – a concept proposed by Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
After extending a pandemic-related refund moratorium until May 1st, Biden is hearing calls from within his own party to fix the issue — including from Warren. She told WAMC last week that the increasingly unpopular president needed to do more than suspend payments.
“We have almost 900,000 people right here in Massachusetts who owe about $30 billion in student debt,” Warren said. “If we canceled $50,000 in student loan debt, it would totally wipe out the debt of 84% of borrowers here in Massachusetts. That would be about three-quarters of a million people. I mean, that would be just amazing.”
The Western Massachusetts Federation of Labor agrees. It represents around 60 public and private unions and 30,000 workers in the region, including service workers, educators, etc. He issued a resolution urging Biden to immediately cancel all student loan debt through an executive order. Spokesperson Ian Rhodewalt explained why:
RHODEWALT: We call on President Biden to immediately sign an executive order canceling all student debt. Not $10,000, not $50,000 or any other means-tested amount, but all student debt. And the Higher Education Act of 1965 gives the President of the United States the power to cancel all student debt by executive order, using what’s known as the Department of Education’s powers of compromise and settlement. And some of the points we made in discussing this is that this is an extremely popular question. Canceling student debt has net positive support nationally and in 38 states and DC. It’s just a very popular problem. Across the country, women hold two-thirds of student debt. Black women in particular bear the brunt of this $2 trillion crisis. There was a tweet from Congresswoman Barbara Lee recently That said, 20 years after taking out student loans, the average white borrower has repaid 94% of their loans, while the average black borrower still owes 95% of their student loan debt – highlighting the fact that they This is a racial justice issue.
WAMC: Explain to me what the Federation of Labor thinks the impact of this would be if Joe Biden took action on this. What would be the result and how would it materially reflect on the ground here in Western Massachusetts?
Thus, 55% of Massachusetts residents have some student loan debt. The average amount is $33,256. As a state, we are, I think, in the top 10 states that have the highest percentages of student borrowers. Canceling this immediately would allow all of this money to stay in the state economy, state and local economies, and help kitchen table budgets for working families.
I found it interesting in the press release that he is also calling on other state and local unions in Massachusetts to join this call. What was the purpose of reaching out to pressure not only elected officials, but also other unions to get this message across?
It is therefore a question of continuing to strengthen the general appeal of the president. He presented himself as a pro-union president, and we want him to know that the unions have demands of him, such as the cancellation of student debt. And the labor movement, as we have all seen, is in a period of resurgence after being stymied for decades by anti-union measures. An executive order to cancel student debt would benefit working class people, unionized workers across the country.
When you reach out to people like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Reps. Jim McGovern and Richard Neal, what exactly is the message to people like that, Democrats in Joe Biden’s party that you reach out to say that this is an important issue for this trade union federation? What is the thought there?
Well, our goal is, as I said, to create that mass appeal and to have many different angles and levers to put pressure on it. We have, Senator Elizabeth Warren is already calling [Biden] to cancel student debt. And we just want to move that request forward and make sure it cancels all student debt. And just to further highlight the large swaths of the population this would affect, some 44 million people have student loan debt. And in the 25 years that income-based repayment plans have been in place, it’s really important to note that only 32 individual borrowers have had their student debt forgiven by these income-based repayment plans. The president has in his power, with his signature, him, on an executive order, he could easily cancel all student debts.
Why wouldn’t the president do that?
That’s a great question, and I don’t know. It’s politically popular, it’s in his interest if he wants to have something to do, to get his party running in the fall. It would be a feather in his hat, so to speak. One thing that sometimes gets lost in the political discourse around student loan debt is that it only affects young people or millennials or Gen Zers. But one in five people responsible for paying off student loan debt is over 50 years and older. Americans can have their Social Security seized for falling behind on their payments. And I think we discovered in 2020 that older Americans really rallied around Joe Biden as a candidate, so highlighting that fact was also instrumental in our thinking about building that broad-based appeal.