Student debt relief is the responsible course of action

During a Milwaukee town hall on Feb. 16, 2021, President Joe Biden put the kibosh on a Chuck Schumer-Elizabeth Warren sponsored proposal to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for students who took federal student loans.

“I will not make that happen… I am prepared to write off (the) $10,000 debt but not $50 (thousand), because I don’t think I have the authority to do it,” Biden said, according to NBC News.

My initial internal response to reading Biden’s words was momentary pain and a longer-lasting disappointment. $50K in forgiveness applied to my student debt would increase my chance of living without debt before I keel over and die (assuming that I die a natural death after a long life). There are times when I fall into despair imagining my future with debt.

My second internal response is acknowledgement that $10,000 is still a lot of money and will make a good dent in the debt I’ve accrued. I am almost certain to qualify for whatever student debt relief package is passed, if any.

Before I continue, let me drop a very brief, very non-expert explanation on why we have credit as a system, as I understand it:

Credit is theoretically straightforward. You borrow money and then return the money either as a lump-sum or over a period of time until the credit debt declines to zero. Simple, like drawing a line on a sheet of paper and then erasing that line. Of course, to pay off debt, one needs to have money to do so, which is where the theory gets scuffed up with practical application.

Brief explanation over.

Us human beings require a lot of food over a lifetime to live. We need clean water to stay healthy and shelter to protect our bodies from the weather. We go get a job that turns out money for our service, and that money is used for mundane activities, like eating. You’re a human. You know the drill.

Yet when in debt we must choose between using that money to live or using it to pay off the debt so the banks/Feds/whoever don’t come crashing down on us.

In theory, we do not need to go into debt to provide for these baseline needs. Instead, we can make credit space for large loan purchases on quality-of-life improvements, like a car or a college education, that will ideally help us to grow as a person. As it turns out according to a 2019 survey by CNBC, we know 25% of Americans found this untrue before the pandemic struck everyone’s pocketbooks—many of us go into debt from needing to use credit on mundane purchases.

Whether or not college is worth going into debt for is debatable, as explored in a 2019 survey from INSIDER and Morning Consult. I’m not sure about this myself, though I lean toward “yes” because I’m an optimist. Assuming that I get a degree, I can wave it around for all the potential employers to see and say “I’m qualified for your labor needs!” and then get a job that pays better than the grocery store or gas station I’d be damned to without a college degree. Even with that degree I’ll spend years paying off the loans I’ve taken to help me reach this non-retail dream.

However, I’m not really the person who needs debt relief the most.

To pull a line from Senator Warren’s press release from Feb. 4 concerning the suggested $50K of federal student debt cancellation: “Studies show that cancelling student debt would substantially increase Black and Latinx household wealth and help narrow the racial wealth gap…”

For a long list of reasons, I have a greater opportunity as a white man to pay off my student debt than Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color. I complain and moan over my loans—paying them off will be tough on me, yes, and sometimes the stress from keeping up with it all turns my stools to bricks . But I’ve got a couple-hundred-years-plus worth of institutionalized privilege to fall back on, even if some act of God sets me back once or twice or several times (Dear God, thank you for your grace. I pray I am not set back at all. Love, Nolan).

And while I very much want that $50k, folks like Biden and me—and the U.S. government in general—have a rather overdue debt that should have been paid off way back in 1865. I don’t know what the monetary rate for “forty acres and a mule” translates to in today’s numbers, but I’m guessing that $50K in student debt forgiveness will cover at least some of that, for those originally denied their mule by President Andrew Johnson, and for every other fellow citizen our nation has worked to disenfranchise since. I’m not a particularly smart guy, and am prone to sophomoric mistakes with every stance I take, but if $50,000 in student debt relief will assuage the injustice of racial inequality, then it is only responsible for our nation to take that course of action.