By Restarting Student Loan Payments, Joe Biden Is Shooting the Democrats in the Foot

Canceling student debt is both the right thing to do and what’s politically smart. By restarting student loan payments and refusing to cancel student debt, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have shown they’re uninterested in either.

Joe Biden speaking with attendees at the 2020 Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) Legislative Conference in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Is smacking voters with a $400-a-month charge a good way to win the midterms?

That’s the average monthly payment more than 40 million potential voters were plunking down for student loans before the Donald Trump administration put a moratorium on payments in the spring of 2020. Now, Joe Biden is more determined to make you start paying them again than he has been to do anything else since he got elected.

With the country still reeling from COVID-19 and Biden’s legislative agenda floundering, he could simply take the big, easy win and cancel student debt, a power granted to the executive branch by the Higher Education Act of 1965. Instead, he’s communicated to tens of millions of voters his priority is to make sure they suffer more. Who’s ready to vote blue?

There are plenty of good reasons to cancel student debt. But even if you don’t think it’s the right thing to do from a moral or economic standpoint, Joe Biden’s plan to make restarting student loan repayment a “high priority” in an election year is simple political malpractice. The wind is already at the GOP’s back. Biden’s enthusiasm to once again burden tens of millions of people with crushing debt makes it harder than ever to imagine the kind of big turnout among younger voters that might save Democrats’ bacon. Then again, since he doesn’t seem very interested in doing anything he promised to do, a Congress controlled by Republicans might suit him just fine.

For over a year, Biden has kicked the issue of student debt back and forth with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats, with both sides demanding the other do something while refusing to exercise their own power. It’s a pathetic spectacle given how transformative such a move would be for millions of mostly young (though not only young) voters.

Canceling student debt would inspire lifelong loyalty of the kind FDR enjoyed, the type of legacy Biden has frequently claimed he wants. Beset by two major recessions during their earning years, dramatic increases in rent, stagnating salaries, and of course ballooning student debt, millennials collectively own less than 5 percent of national wealth, compared to baby boomers’ 21 percent when they were the same age as millennials are now. (Baby boomers now own about 54 percent of national wealth, since in addition to enjoying more favorable circumstances, they have had more time to accumulate it than millennials.)

Millennials — along with Generation X, which has fewer student debtors by numbers but a higher average balance — will be major voting blocs for another fifty or sixty years, while the younger Generation Z is likely to be even more indebted than either one. Opponents of debt cancellation claim that it would benefit those who are already well-off at the public’s expense. But in fact it has long been well-documented that student debt is a major driver of inequality, that the disparity between what white students and students of color owe grows significantly after graduation, and that debt hits young Hispanic and black people the hardest.

Instead of rushing to erase their debt, transform their lives, and win their loyalty, Biden is blithely giving them the finger, and the Democrats are mostly content to let him. The easy win is right in front of them. When they lose in 2022, they only have themselves to blame.