Without a parallel effort to curb tuition growth, one-time debt relief could actually lead to more higher-education debt in the future as students take on larger loans, hoping the government would at some point wipe them clean, a “moral hazard” that often accompanies one-time interventions. And it would be expensive: Canceling even $10,000 per person in debt would eliminate more than $400 billion in government assets, although calculating the true cost to the Treasury is tricky because of student loans’ long repayment time and high default rate.
Mr. Looney said that canceling $50,000, at a projected cost of $1 trillion, would be “among the largest transfer programs in American history,” on par with decades of targeted spending on programs that exclusively benefit low-income families, such as the $992 billion spent on federal Pell grants since 1972 and the $1.4 trillion spent on welfare since 1975.
If debt relief overall would disproportionately flow to better-off Americans, even modest debt forgiveness would help many financially vulnerable people, especially people of color. Student debt load has tripled since 2006 and eclipsed both credit cards and auto loans as the largest source of household debt outside mortgages, and much of it falls on Black graduates, who owe an average of $7,400 more than their white peers at the time they leave school. Black borrowers also default at higher rates.
College dropouts, especially those who attended for-profit schools, often end up trapped by debt they cannot afford to repay.
“In this moment of national reckoning on racial injustice, the president-elect must cancel all federal student debt on Day 1 of his administration,” Representative Ayanna Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “The president-elect must meet the moment. If he fails to, we will hold him accountable.”
An economic working paper published by the Roosevelt Institute casts debt forgiveness explicitly in racial-justice terms. The total percentage of Black households that would benefit would be greater than white households, and the relative gains for those households’ net worth are far larger, the researchers found. The greatest marginal gains come from canceling the smallest debts; wiping out $20,000 would end student debt for half of all households with loans.
Senators Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a joint op-ed last week that $50,000 debt cancellations would give “Black and brown families across the country a far better shot at building financial security” and would be the “single most effective executive action available to provide massive stimulus to our economy.”