This column appeared previously in The Daily Hampshire Gazette.
In my household of two, together we hold $132,829.70 in student debt. On a bitter cold day in early March on the week the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments, at a student debt cancellation rally, 25 of us stood on the steps of the federal court in Springfield calling for President Biden to cancel all federally held student debt. Collectively, we held $1.2 million in student debt.
Last April, at a similar debt cancellation rally in front of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s office in Northampton, the 25 debtors at that event collectively held $1 million in student debt.
Part of the challenge of confronting this $1.8 trillion student debt crisis is that the discourse around it is often so individualized that we might not realize there is a community of more than 44 million of us in this country who are burdened by the weight of the debt that we hold for the education we have sought out for ourselves after high school. More than one out of every two Massachusetts residents, or 55% of us, hold some student debt. The graduating class of 2023 from public higher education institutions in the commonwealth collectively hold more than $400 million in student debt.
The student debt repayment moratorium that began over three years ago, in March 2020, has been a lifeline for debtors across the country. I have heard from union members who have been able to buy a house, save for weddings, and generally been able to weather the skyrocketing cost of living increase (the price of eggs, for example, increased by 70% over the past year) thanks to the moratorium.
Personally, when our very old fridge and stove finally died, my wife and I were able to buy new ones at Manny’s Appliances in Hadley. Similarly, we were able to make a down payment and secure a loan to purchase a newer car at Nicky D’s Used Cars in Easthampton when our older car’s engine gave up the ghost.
If the moratorium were not in place, that money would not stay in the local economy, but would go into the student debt collection corporations’ ever-expanding coffers. Thanks to the incredibly flawed decision by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the debt ceiling deal to codify the end to the moratorium, local economies in Western Massachusetts and beyond will bear the brunt of student debtors’ inability to make necessary purchases.
Student debt is an urgent issue for teachers, for schools, for campuses, for education from pre-K through higher education. Student debt is an urgent issue for nurses, for EMTs, for physical therapists. Student debt is an urgent issue for truck drivers seeking to pay off their training fees. Student debt is an urgent labor union issue. When unions make wins at the bargaining table for better wages or better benefits, but then a large portion of those wages has to go into the void of student debt repayment, what have we really won?
When workers have to choose between paying back their student debt, rent, or buying groceries — this is an issue for our unions. Student debt is an urgent racial justice and gender equity issue. Women hold two-thirds of student debt, and Black women hold about 20% more on average than their white peers.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and it wasn’t always this way. We are not beholden to a corrupt Supreme Court. President Biden must immediately cancel all federally held student debt by executive order, which he has the power to do under the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation has been urging him to do this since January 2022.
If President Biden wants to be the most “labor-friendly president ever,” he would do well to listen to organized labor when we tell him to cancel all student debt. Otherwise, for the local economy, “Bidenomics” will become synonymous with restarting unnecessary and unjust debt collections for about 367,000 western Massachusetts residents, or roughly 55% of the adult population of Hampden, Hampshire, Berkshire and Franklin counties.
Ian Rhodewalt is the field organizer for the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, a coalition of more than 60 public and private sector unions in the region.