Holistic student debt relief was supposed to be part of House Democrats’ 1,800-page Heroes Act, the follow-up to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or Cares, Act that passed the chamber on Friday. As originally constructed, the legislation would have canceled $10,000 for every person with student loan debt—private or federal—and suspended all payments through September 30, 2021. While a step down from the Student Debt Emergency Relief Act introduced by Representatives Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley in March—which called for $30,000 in debt relief for all borrowers—the provision in the Heroes Act, as initially written, was still praiseworthy. Its universality was its strength.
A manager’s amendment to the proposal introduced late last week, amid concerns that the costs of a one-time mass $10,000 payment to all those indebted to colleges would be too high, refocused the bill’s student debt relief efforts on “economically distressed borrowers.” As passed, the bill offered $10,000 of relief only for those who, as of March 12, had already defaulted, were 90 days behind on payments, or had already had their payments suspended due to a preexisting unemployment status.
The Heroes Act was never going to go to President Trump’s desk in anything close to the same form as it left the House. These starting bids are always vision documents. The legislation should have outlined the ways in which the Democratic Party believes a government should respond to a public health and economic crisis of this proportion. And yet the bill that it ultimately passed in the House was, somehow, to the right of presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who in late March signed on to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for a nationwide $10,000 per person relief effort.
The student debt crisis is not one that the United States can avoid for much longer: As of 2019, the total amount of college loans weighing down current and former students had ballooned to $1.6 trillion, more than double the amount that existed in 2011 (which was up 511 percent from the total in 1999). This anchor of debt has been growing exponentially among young adults in this country for the past two decades for a bunch of reasons—a concerted attack on public education funding that stems back to Ronald Reagan and his acolytes; price-gouging by private institutions with staggering endowments and overpaid administrators; and the long-institutionalized belief that college is the only pathway in America to a comfortable life.