President Biden has announced the cancellation of $10,000 of student debt for borrowers with incomes below $125,000. Even as a matter of naked political calculation, it would be better for him to just cancel it all.

President Joe Biden at the White House on August 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

President Joe Biden has announced that he’s finally decided to carry out one of his long-dormant campaign promises from the fall of 2020. He’ll wipe out $10,000 of student debt for borrowers with incomes below $125,000.

That’s a good start. But it’s not even close to good enough.

Biden Drags His Feet

It says everything about what kind of president he’s been that the past week wasn’t even the first time reports had circulated that Biden was about to make the decision. This is the president who accepted the nonbinding opinion of the Senate parliamentarian as the last word on any attempt to use the budget reconciliation process to carry out his campaign promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He’s the president whose former press secretary claimed four months ago that the only update she could give on his campaign promise to release nonviolent marijuana offenders serving federal time was that, a year and change into his presidency, Joe Biden was still “reviewing” his pardoning powers. Of course we ended up doing a ridiculous “will he or won’t he” dance about whether he would take the executive action on student loans that he could have taken on his first day in office.

Biden’s decision is good news for millions of people struggling to pay off debt for something that no one should have been charged for in the first place. It also makes sense politically. Going into midterm elections that pose enormous risks for his party, Biden badly needs to energize his voters. The more people who have experienced concrete improvements in their lives as a result of the actions of the party in power, the better off the Democrats will be in their contests with Republicans. That part’s not very complicated.

On both fronts, though, limiting the relief to the first $10,000 and means-testing even that is a very bad idea. Making a show of only helping those who most need or deserve help obscures a clear and easily defended point of principle and implicitly accepts the opposition’s framing. And $10,000 is a small fraction of what’s owed by many of the voters Democrats most need to show up this November.

The average black student loan borrower, for example, owes $52,000 — nearly twice the debt of the average white borrower. This is one reason groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have called for Biden to forgive $50,000 instead of the initially promised $10,000. Forgiving less than 20 percent of debt that someone still won’t be able to pay off any time in the foreseeable future is going to get them a hell of a lot less excited about standing in line to vote for your party in November than they would be otherwise. And right now Biden badly needs Democratic voters to be excited.

In 2020, Biden only got 51.3 percent of the national popular vote even though a) Trump’s catastrophic response to both COVID and the national wave of unrest following the murder of George Floyd was enough to galvanize Democrats to turn out to vote in record-shattering numbers and b) COVID-inspired expansions of mail-in voting made it easier to vote than it’s ever been in any election in American history — and certainly easier that it’s going to be in many states this November. Oh, and c) it was a presidential election. Democratic voters are already less likely than Republicans to vote in midterms.

Maybe the fallout from the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and the incremental improvements in the economic situation will be enough to save Democrats from the electoral slaughter that was widely forecast until very recently. But that’s a big “maybe.” And every voter who can point to a way in which Biden has acted to make life better for themselves or someone they love is a voter Democrats are going to very badly need.

Cancel It All

Means-testing the relief also concedes a core point of principle. Imagine that K-12 public schools charged tuition, or that the fire department charged co-pays when they came to put out a fire — but that there were programs in place to generously allow you to borrow the money and slowly pay it back for decades. If you find this hypothetical morally repulsive, the reason isn’t because you worry that not everyone would have the means to pay it back. It’s that no one should be charged for such things in the first place.

If higher education is like that, then trying to figure out who can afford to pay it back, or how much relief is a “reasonable” amount, concedes a core point of principle. The problem with shaking people down for a payment for something that everyone should get just for being part of our society has absolutely nothing to do with how much any individual person being shaken down will suffer as a result or how reasonable it is to think they can afford to pay up. It’s both loathsome in principle and politically counterproductive to conduct the debate in those terms — i.e. the terms of Republicans and conservative Democrats who will argue as a matter of course than student debt relief is a giveaway to middle-class professionals who don’t really need it.

Of course, plenty of people who pursued postgraduate degrees to advance their careers are far from prosperous. A large percentage of nurses, and more than half of K-12 teachers, have masters’ degrees, for example. But conducting the debate in those weeds is a bad idea.

Arguments about who’s suffering the most and hence most deserves help rarely end up anywhere good. Instead, as with medical debt and other kinds of unjust debt, the right answer here — on both moral and political grounds — is very simple. Cancel it all.

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