Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Elizabeth Warren renewed their calls Wednesday for President Joe Biden to cancel student debt. They joined union leaders and borrowers for a roundtable hosted by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
“This is an impactful issue for people from every walk of life,” Pressley said, responding to criticisms that debt cancellation would benefit those already well off. “For our elders who cannot retire because they took out Parent PLUS loans and they are still paying on those loans. For our young teachers who cannot pay the monthly minimum because they are also struggling to pay for childcare, for the service worker who feels that they will never get back on their feet because they have gone into default.”
The White House has long maintained that its ability to act is limited without Congressional approval. Advocates argue Biden could cancel student debt through an executive order. At the beginning of June, Biden canceled $5.8 billion in debt for half a million former students of the now-defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges. He was also said to be considering a broader forgiveness of $10,000 per borrower, which has yet to come.
Pressley and Warren want to see Biden relieve $50,000 per borrower, which Pressley framed as a racial justice issue in addition to a labor issue. “Policies like redlining are forcing us to take on higher student debt loads than our white peers just for a shot at a college degree,” she said. “We've been told we live in a meritocracy. We've been told that education is the great equalizer. … This has only exacerbated and grown the racial wealth gap.”
Pressley credited a diverse coalition, including union workers, for bringing the issue to the fore. “We owe it to the millions of union workers who have kept our nation running during these unprecedented, challenging times,” she said. “Student debt cancellation is core to any just and equitable economic recovery from this pandemic.”
Warren also framed the student debt crisis as a labor issue and highlighted the importance of strong unions: “Unions lift the voices of working people across this nation, and at this moment, tens of millions of Americans turn to our unions saying, ‘Lift my voice. Help us with this student loan debt.’”
At the roundtable, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recalled polling her members about the core issues affecting them. “Normally this polling is confidential,” she said. “I had to break confidentiality. Why? Because the polling was about student debt, and several people who responded talked about how suicidal they were. … They talked about how they couldn't make ends meet and the shame of having student debt.”
Like Pressley, Warren pushed back against critics arguing debt cancellation will benefit the rich. “This is an issue that affects hard-working people, people who try, people who work two jobs and three jobs, people who start, and maybe it doesn't work out the first time, but they want to come back and try again,” she said.
She pointed to her own history as a motivator for her efforts to cancel student debt; she attended University of Houston for $50 per semester while working part-time to cover the cost.
“Why was that opportunity out there? Because we made the decisions together to invest in the future of our children, not just the children born into wealthy families,” Warren said. Today, she said, things have changed.
“$1.7 trillion of student loan debt did not just fall out of the sky,” she said. “It happened because of deliberate policy decisions to make investments in cutting taxes for the richest Americans and paying for it by shortchanging the education of our children.”
Speaking to Biden, Warren said that if the president cares about labor, he should take action. “Today would be a good day to cancel $50,000 in student loan debt,” she said. “This is the beauty of an action that the president can take all on his own. … All the Republicans can do right now is lie and hope that they can dissuade the president from doing what is right for working people.”