Times-Herald (Vallejo)

Activists keep pressure as Biden weighs student debt

- By Chris Megerian

WASHINGTON >> For student loan activists, the week began with hope as President Joe Biden gave his clearest indication that he was considerin­g canceling federal debt rather than simply allowing borrowers to defer payments during the pandemic.

But that soon gave way to disappoint­ment when Biden signaled days later that any debt relief would be much less than activists wanted. So Melissa Byrne, one of the organizers who has been leading the charge, got back to work.

First, she tweeted that activists need to “ramp up” their efforts, stay “warm + fuzzy” and “fight until we win.” (“White House staff reads tweets,” she explained.) Then she and her allies

dove into their group chats as they considered ways to keep the pressure on.

“We need to keep our eye on the prize,” Byrne said.

The flurry of activity comes in a crucial stretch, with Biden saying he would make a decision in the coming weeks. After promising to address the issue during his campaign for president, he's now weighing how much federal student loan debt should be canceled and who should benefit.

Critics caution that forgiving debt might anger voters who already paid off their loans, and Republican­s describe the idea as a political giveaway in a midterm election year. However, an expansive approach could buoy young people whom Democrats view as a central part of their coalition, allowing Biden to deliver concrete results when many of his proposals from the left remain stalled on Capitol Hill.

John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, said student loan forgivenes­s is “a cornerston­e in the relationsh­ip between President Biden and young Americans.”

Without young voters on board, “we don't have a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president,” said Della Volpe, who worked as a consultant for Biden's campaign.

About 43 million Americans owe $1.6 trillion on their student loans, more than either credit cards or car payments. It's a growing problem for younger people, who have assumed more and more debt to finance their educations when public funding for colleges has declined.

And it's a challenge that Biden has personally experience­d. While running for office, he told a student in New Hampshire that he “ended up with a debt of over $280,000” to pay for college and graduate school for his three children.

“I get it,” he said.

In a poll of Americans under 30 years old conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School and released on Monday, 85% said the federal government should take some action on student loan debt.

However, opinions were split about the best path forward. Although 38% supported full cancellati­on, 21% wanted such a step to be taken for only those with the greatest financial needs. In addition, 27% wanted the government to help with repayment, but not debt cancellati­on.

Biden said Thursday that he was still considerin­g what to do.

“I'm in the process of taking a hard look at whether or not there will be additional debt forgivenes­s,” he said. “And I'll have an answer on that in the next couple of weeks.”

It's possible that his idea will include means testing, which involves limiting by income who would see their debts forgiven.

“He has talked in the past about how, you know, he doesn't believe that millionair­es and billionair­es, obviously, should benefit, or even people from the highest income,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “So that's certainly something he would be looking at.”

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