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Reviews | The Political Arguments for Canceling Student Loan Debt

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The political case for President Biden to cancel student loan debt is strong, and it is made very well by many others. So this column will focus on the electoral file. It’s pretty loud too – but with a few caveats.

There are three big electoral reasons to cancel student debt: to attract young voters and those with debt, to please the Democratic base, and to build momentum for the Biden presidency.

About 45 million Americans have college debt, about 17% of the adult population. It’s a big number. About 83% of Americans currently receiving student debt forgiveness, according to poll by left-leaning think tank Data for Progress and the Student Borrower Protection Center.

And while most young people don’t have college debt, those who do are disproportionately younger than 45, and younger than 30 in particular. Young voters are Democratic-leaning, but they tend to vote at high rates in some elections (2018, 2020) and not others (2014), and Democrats suffer when turnout among young voters drops. Biden’s support has plummeted among younger voters; loan forgiveness and other targeted policies could stimulate these voters.

But the group that most supports forgiveness is not college graduates (62% in favor, according to a Data for Progress poll) or people under 45 (72%). These are the Democratic voters, 83% of whom are in favour. One of the successes of the debt relief movement was to take what was a left-wing stance and turn it into one espoused by establishment Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (NY) and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (SC) and the party more broadly. Grassroots mobilization is particularly important in a midterm election cycle, when voter turnout tends to be lower. And the base really likes debt cancellation.

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While most Democrats favor debt relief, the left wing of the party has galvanized around the issue, with 93% of “very liberal” Americans in favor. Although it is difficult to quantify them precisely, members of the left wing of the party represent around 10 to 15% of the overall electorate and a quarter one-third of Democrats. That’s comparable to black voters (12% of the electorate; one-fifth of Democrats). Democrats shouldn’t go overboard to appease progressives, just as they need to calibrate their appeals to black voters, but they need all the progressive votes they can get. So it’s worth thinking of debt cancellation as Biden’s pledge to choose a black woman for the Supreme Court. The president is facing demand from a critical part of his coalition, and meeting that demand will help energize that part of his coalition.

Megan McArdle


counterpointThe Biden administration has a fan-service problem

But the loan forgiveness could also have electoral benefits beyond that. In my view, Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted in part, because his administration just seems stalled. Forgiveness could help change this narrative. Americans who take to social media and praise Biden for saving them thousands of dollars might help him, even among people without any college debt, as many of them have friends or relatives in debt.

Still, it would be dangerous for Democrats, who are already gaining overall among college graduates but losing those without a degree, to further deepen this degree divide. After all, only a third of American adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. But polls suggest that debt relief does not divide people by education. Only around 30% of people without a diploma are opposed to forgiveness, as is the proportion of people with degrees, according to a poll by leftist YouGov Blue.

Perhaps those numbers will change if debt relief is presented by the media or Republicans as a concession to college graduates. But for now, polls show that a plurality and, in some polls, a clear majority of Americans support debt relief and that the minority in opposition is largely made up of conservatives and Republicans, who will vote against the Democrats anyway.

The problem for Biden is that many center-left Democratic politicians and prominent center-left or centrist media figures and institutions — including this newspaper’s editorial board — also oppose it. A similar coalition of Republicans, center-left Democrats and influential media voices were skeptical of Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan last summer, so when it went wrong, Biden faced intense, bipartisan criticism that was in turn heavily amplified by the media. . This coverage has lowered Biden’s poll numbers. If I were Biden, I would worry that these opponents would amplify stories of forgiven loans to “undeserving” people (e.g., Harvard graduates or corporate lawyers) and poison the program in the eyes of the public. audience.

What if Biden announces a loan forgiveness program but federal courts rule it illegal? It wouldn’t be the worst result in the world, but it could still hurt. I think most Democrats would be happy that Biden tried. But an announced and canceled loan forgiveness program would add to the perception that Biden is ineffective.

Biden should forgive student loans because it would help millions — not because it would guarantee the Democrats win the midterm election, because it probably won’t. But there’s real reason to think that debt cancellation is that rare thing in Washington: good politics and good politics all at the same time.