Critics of President Biden’s plan to relieve the debt of millions of Americans with federal student loans have made a considered choice to put their words in the mouths of an imagined group of working-class and blue-collar voters, angry and aggrieved at debt forgiveness for upper-income college graduates.
For example, here’s Senator Ted Cruz of Texas: “What President Biden has, in effect, decided to do is to take from working-class people, to take from truck drivers and construction workers right now, thousands of dollars in taxes in order to redistribute it to college graduates who have student loans.”
Now, as I noted over the weekend, this way of thinking betrays an ignorance of working-class life in this country. To work as a truck driver or a medical technician or a home inspector or any number of other similar blue-collar jobs, you need training, licenses, certifications. People go to school to meet these requirements. They apply for the same federal student loans and take on the same debt as someone going to college. And many of these Americans labor under the burden of that debt because of high costs and lower-than-expected earnings. (To say nothing of those who attended college, took on debt, but didn’t graduate.)
The idea that student loan relief is a handout to a small minority of affluent college graduates is simply a myth.
But even if you put all this aside, there is also the fact that these would-be spokesmen for working-class and blue-collar Americans aren’t actually speaking for working-class and blue-collar Americans. The polls, so far, make this clear.
The first poll since the plan was announced, from Emerson College, shows broad approval from across the electorate. When asked about loan forgiveness of up to $10,000 for borrowers making under $125,000 a year — one of the key planks of Biden’s plan — 35 percent of respondents said it was “just about the right amount of action.” This might not seem like much, but then consider the 30 percent of respondents who said $10,000 worth of relief was “not enough.” Presumably, this group will support the current plan but wishes it would go even further — bringing the total number of supporters to almost two-thirds of Americans. Just over a third of respondents, by contrast, said that Biden’s plan went too far.
A second poll, conducted by YouGov for CBS News, goes into more detail about the demographics of support for Biden’s plan. Overall, 54 percent of Americans said that they approved of the Biden administration canceling some student loan debt for certain borrowers, versus 46 percent who disapproved. Nearly 70 percent of all Americans 44 and under supported the policy, as well as 47 Americans of voters from 45 to 64. Only the oldest Americans showed strong disapproval. What’s interesting as well is that 88 percent of Black Americans, 68 percent of Hispanics and 41 percent of whites without a college degree approved of the plan.
This, I’m certain, includes plenty of Americans with working-class and blue-collar jobs.
When you consider who benefits from the president’s plan, this support makes sense. According to the administration, close to 90 percent of affected borrowers earn $75,000 or less, they are disproportionately young and Black, and they include millions of people who work the kinds of jobs that, for critics of debt relief, are supposed to entitle their views to greater consideration.
There is a broader context for this support. The student loan debt crisis has at least some of its origins in decisions made during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s to reduce state support for higher education and induce Americans to take out loans so that they might have “skin in the game.” This was part of a larger agenda to degrade the social infrastructure of public life, as policymakers traded easy credit and access to cheap consumer goods for high wages and a measure of economic security.
It is no coincidence that all of this took shape in the wake of the civil rights movement, the fracturing of the New Deal coalition and the end (for those who had enjoyed it) of the Fordist economic order of male breadwinners and traditional families. Opposition to broad redistribution on the basis of racial chauvinism dovetailed in a mutually reinforcing fashion with opposition to redistribution as part of the basis for a new order of shareholder dominance.
The rise of the student loan, in other words, is tied to this larger story of the transformation of the American political economy in the last decades of the 20th century, a transformation that you can see, in politics, with the suburban tax revolts of the 1970s and the rise of the “welfare queen” as an object of ridicule and contempt in the 1980s.
As power moved away from workers to shareholders and owners of capital, the losers in this great experiment were a majority of ordinary Americans. And as is often the case in the history of capitalist inequality in the United States, Black Americans bore much of the initial brunt of this transformation.
Given who has been hit hardest by the destruction of public goods in this country, it’s no surprise that young people, working people and Black people are among the groups most supportive of student loan forgiveness. In the same way, it is no surprise that so many people on the right and in the center of American politics are opposed to it, partisanship aside.
Even a debt relief policy as modest as President Biden’s is a sea change from the direction of American policymaking for the last 40 years. It is not unlike President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, another moderate and limited program that nonetheless changed the health care landscape for the better.
Neither is perfect, but both represent a challenge to the political and economic order since Reagan — to austerity, to tax cuts and to attempts to dismantle the welfare state for good. And for the market fundamentalists among us, any challenge is one challenge too many.
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