White House defends US student loan forgiveness amid criticism

Joe Biden says he will never apologise for ‘helping America’s middle class’ as critics say cancelling debt is unfair.

Karine Jean-Pierre
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre says loan forgiveness aims to give American families financial 'breathing room' [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Washington, DC – As progressive activists hailed US President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for college graduates, Republicans and some conservative Democrats have slammed the move as an unfair boost for a relatively small segment of society.

Biden and his aides mounted a defence of student debt relief on Thursday, stressing that the plan fulfils a presidential campaign promise and will benefit middle- and working-class Americans.

“I will never apologize for helping America’s middle class – especially not to the same folks who voted for a $2 trillion tax cut for the wealthy and giant corporations that racked up the deficit,” Biden wrote on Twitter, referring to a 2017 tax law signed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

The US president announced on Wednesday that his administration would wipe out $10,000 in student debt for graduates making less than $125,000 annually, while those who received federal Pell Grants for lower-income families would get $20,000 in loan forgiveness.

Republicans were nearly unanimous in denouncing the move, and they were joined by some members of Biden’s own Democratic Party.

Congressman Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat running for the US Senate, criticised the debt relief as too broad.

“As someone who’s paying off my own family’s student loans, I know the costs of higher education are too high,” Ryan said in a statement. “And while there’s no doubt that a college education should be about opening opportunities, waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message.”

Ryan’s right-wing Senate opponent JD Vance had hit out against him over Biden’s decision.

“Thanks to Tim Ryan and Joe Biden, Ohio workers are paying off the loans of Harvard Law students,” Vance wrote on Twitter. “If this seems unfair and illegal, it’s because it is.”

The idea that average taxpayers will be paying off the loans of wealthier college graduates has been a constant theme against student debt cancellation. Often managed by private companies, federal student loans are owned or guaranteed by the US Department of Education, so the debt forgiveness will come at the expense of the US government.

‘Breathing room’

But White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday that Biden wanted to follow through on his campaign promise and give a “little bit of breathing room” to Americans struggling to pay off their loans, stressing that the relief is “targeted” based on income.

“This is a smart, fiscally balanced way … to deal with an issue that does indeed cripple families,” Jean-Pierre told reporters, noting that the move has the support of many labour unions and advocacy groups.

Biden also emphasised that point on Thursday, writing on Twitter: “Student debt relief must go to those who really need it. Period. My Administration is ensuring that no high-income individual or household in the top 5% will benefit from debt cancellation.”

The White House said in a fact sheet this week that 87 percent of the planned debt forgiveness will benefit people making less than $75,000 annually.

Supporters of the move also stressed that the burden of student loans disproportionately affects people of colour. “This will help free borrowers—especially borrowers of color—from the crushing burden of student loan debt and help make higher education accessible and affordable to all,” senior House Democrat Jim Clyburn wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

Still, Congressman Jared Golden, a Maine Democrat, said the relief was “out of touch with what the majority of the American people want from the White House, which is leadership to address the most immediate challenges the country is facing”.

For his part, Republican Senator Ted Cruz called Biden’s announcement a “gut punch” to those who have paid off their debts and to our “service members who risked their lives to earn the GI Bill“, which helps cover college costs for military veterans.

Other Republicans also invoked army service when criticising Biden’s decision. “Student loan forgiveness undermines one of our military’s greatest recruitment tools at a time of dangerously low enlistments,” Republican Congressman Jim Banks wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

Later in the day, the White House responded in a series of tweets to several Republican Congress members who criticised debt relief, noting that they had their own Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans – a COVID-19 stimulus scheme to help businesses – forgiven.

Meanwhile, critics noted that debt forgiveness does not address the source of the problem – skyrocketing college costs that leave students with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt by the time they graduate.

“Moving forward, we need to reform the system that got us here in the first place with solutions to bring down the absurd cost of college. We cannot continue to trap another generation of Americans in this cruel cycle,” Democratic Senator Michael Bennet said in a statement.

The White House said on Wednesday that it is working to bring down the cost of college education but provided few details.

“To further reduce the cost of college, the president will continue to fight to double the maximum Pell Grant and make community college free,” the fact sheet read. “Meanwhile, colleges have an obligation to keep prices reasonable and ensure borrowers get value for their investments, not debt they cannot afford.”

Source: Al Jazeera