A version of this story appears in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
President Joe Biden officially announced his student loan forgiveness plan, but there are so many questions that remain, including:
- How much, exactly, will it cost?
- Will it add to inflation?
- Does Biden actually have the authority to wave a pen and make this happen?
But the overriding question for a lot of people who didn’t go to college, those who already paid off their loans or folks who make more than $125,000 (or more than $250,000 if they’re married couples or heads of households) is this: What about me?
People who are interested in buying an electric vehicle with help from a federal tax credit but who make more than $150,000 ($300,000 if married) are asking the same thing.
Universal proposals are a thing of the past
It’s a 180 in the national conversation from the 2020 presidential campaign when serious candidates like Andrew Yang were pushing the idea of a universal basic income for all Americans – the idea that every adult American should get a $1,000 per month paycheck, regardless of their income – and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was pushing “baby bonds” to be given to nearly every American child to address racial inequality.
Income limits, or means testing, is the government’s way of targeting help to the people that really need it.
It also creates new layers of government bureaucracy to verify income and can lead to complaints about unfairness and stigmas. More on that below.
Inflation fears are real
There are also valid concerns that funneling all this cash out in the economy – it will be hundreds of billions of dollars, but we don’t know exactly how much – will only add to the rampant inflation that has made American life so much more expensive.
“We need to make college affordable, not send a $10,000 gift to people that already have, in many cases, advanced degrees,” said Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, during an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow before the loan forgiveness was formally announced.
The larger problem is the cost of college
Goldwein argued that targeting people with college loans at all is unfair to people who don’t go to college or don’t pursue advanced degrees.
“Disproportionately, student debt is held by people that have advanced degrees and pretty good income, and they can bear it a lot more than everyday Americans that are seeing the cost of their gasoline and clothing go up,” Goldwein said.
Not everyone with college debt finishes college
Indivar Dutta-Gupta of the Center for Law and Social Policy agrees that college affordability is a larger program that must be addressed. But he pushed back during our phone conversation when I said Biden’s program is focused on people who have degrees and earning potential.
“A lot of them don’t have degrees,” he said. “About 40% of people with student debt have no college degree. That’s one thing people don’t realize.”
There is overlap, he said, between people in poverty and people who have attended some college. His concern is that the income limit creates barriers to getting the help to people who may struggle to prove their income.
$125,000 does not go as far in some places
It’s also true that individuals with loan debt making $125,000 or less today may earn more in the future.
There is an added geographic disparity to consider. There are likely more people in New York or California, for example, who make more than $125,000 and yet still feel crushed by their student loan debt than people in more affordable states.
It’s a step toward racial equality
One major selling point of the college debt forgiveness announced by Biden is that it can particularly help people of color and also people who take jobs that help society function.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Thursday that while he opposes means testing for loan forgiveness, he can appreciate that it is targeted.
“Now we’re talking about teachers, we’re talking about federal employees, we’re talking about state and municipal employees, individuals who make sure that our economy grows, that maintain the necessary services for our citizens, and who really make democracy work,” Johnson said.
He also argued – and it’s a valid point – that the government did not ask for means tests when it helped businesses during the pandemic or cut corporate taxes in the hope of fueling job growth.
There’s been some attention on Twitter to the fact that people like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia who oppose the student loan forgiveness had loans for small businesses forgiven during the pandemic through a government program.
Expanded child tax credit was a much broader benefit
Another pandemic program that was more broadly applied and had more potential to transform the country was the temporary expansion of the child tax credit, which cut down on poverty by putting money in the pockets of the vast majority of American parents and lifting millions of kids out of poverty while it was in effect, according to studies.
Its income threshold was very high and determined by the IRS, which cut down on the difficulty of applying it. A major issue for the tax credit was that families who made too little to file income taxes were not always identified and paid by the IRS.
The expansion of the tax credit ended when Democrats could not convince Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to keep it without substantial tweaks. Read more from CNN’s Tami Luhby.
The end of the child tax credit expansion was a throwback to 1996, when a Republican Congress and then-President Bill Clinton agreed to drastically scale back the federal government’s role in applying welfare programs and instituted new work requirements that cut down on who qualified.
Some programs are nearly universal
Not all US programs have means testing. Every child in the US is guaranteed a spot in a public school. Every American senior has health insurance through Medicare. Every American who works for about 10 years gets Social Security benefits. Most Americans who lose a full-time job are eligible for unemployment insurance.
There are catches. Public education varies greatly from state to state and district to district. Social Security benefits are based on income. And some of Medicare’s premiums are on a sliding scale. Unemployment insurance often misses people with gig or part-time work and businesspeople.
The cost of unlimited benefits makes them politically untenable in the US. Which means the best the government can do to forgive debt or encourage EV purchasing is targeting people who make a certain amount of money.