The student debt crisis? It’s infinitely worse for black women.
There’s an old black proverb: “When white people catch a cold, black people get pneumonia.” This means that any problem that hits America at large is going to hit black America worse. We see this almost everywhere we bother to look: in health outcomes, economic metrics, environmental issues — anything that hits white people hits black people harder. About the only case where this trend is reversed is with the virus of fascism: blacks seem to be somewhat more resistant to the lure of white ethno-nationalist authoritarianism than whites. Go figure.
When it comes to the student debt crisis, a new study from the Education Trust shows that white people have a cold, black people have pneumonia and black women have the fucking bubonic plague. Women of all races carry two-thirds of the $1.7 trillion in unpaid college debt in this country, but black women carry more per capita, carry it longer, earn less money, and have less income. help when trying to pay off their debts. It’s a grim picture: Basically, black women are being punished for daring to try to improve their prospects through education and degrees.
Black women sit at the intersection of racism and misogyny, so one would expect their student loan burden to be heavier than that of other groups. But the wide disparity shown in the report (which you can read in full here) surprised me. Black women who earned a four-year degree had average student debt of about $38,000, compared to about $35,000 for black men and $27,000 and $24,000 for white women and men respectively. Another way to put these numbers is that black women graduated with almost 60% more debt than their white male counterparts.
The numbers swell when we talk about higher education. Black women who pursue higher education end up with an average debt of around $49,000, compared to just $29,000 for white women, a nearly 70% increase in debt burden. This seems like a good time to mention that Republicans have no intention of helping women of any race pay off college debt, but think the government can live, rent-free, in the womb of a woman if she becomes pregnant at any time and under any circumstances.
Black women have the least help paying off these debts. Only 9.5% of black women said they received help from family or friends to repay their student loans within 12 months. This compares to 15% of black men, 20% of white women, 21% of white men, 25% of Asian men, and 30% of Asian women. When you remember that black women earn less than any other group, that a black woman with a bachelor’s degree or better earns on average a little more than what a white man with some college but no degree wins, the higher debt with less aid is all the more crushing.
This all leads to the most devastating statistic of all. Twelve years after starting college, black women (and black men) as a group owe more money than they borrowed, not less. Black women owe an average of 13% more than they borrowed, to a point where white men have paid off an average of 44% of their debt.
President Joe Biden kept his campaign promise and appointed a black woman to the Supreme Court. Now he should back that achievement up with cash and keep one of his other campaign promises: cancel at least $10,000 in student loan debt. People don’t often talk about student debt relief as a matter of racial justice, but it absolutely is. Black people borrow more, earn less and are less likely to have family members who are wealthy enough to help them. Debt relief is much more of a “black” issue than, say, sentencing reform for crack cocaine disparities.
And like so much else in society, reforms that help black women tend to help everyone else too. There are 43 million American debtors and, again, two-thirds of them are women. Half of people who borrowed money still owe at least $20,000 20 years after entering college.
In addition to being a problem for blacks and a problem for women, student debt is also a problem for young people. Recent polls show Biden’s approval ratings are falling among younger voters, to levels that are likely unsustainable for successful Democratic candidates. I may not have the political savvy of the centrist geniuses who advise Democrats to ditch black people and “do popular things”, but it seems to me that give money to people is a political winner.
Student debt relief is a win for young voters, women, black people, and especially black women. Predictably, Joe Manchin won’t allow that to happen. Manchin even removed free community college from the Build Back Better reconciliation bill last fall.
But Biden can and should cancel federal student debt by executive order. He has the power to do it. It’s not the strongest grant of authority, but it would be more than enough if Biden were a Republican. Biden could use the Higher Education Act of 1965. This law arguably gives the Department of Education the power to “enforce, pay, compromise, waive or discharge” student debt held by the federal government.
Now, I don’t think the HEA was designed to allow the president to simply forgive student loan debt without an act of Congress. But I’m also old enough to remember when a Republican president declared a false emergency under the National Emergencies Act in order to steal money to build a wall that was explicitly not authorized by Congress. And the courts more or less let him off the hook. The HEA gives Biden more power to cancel student debt than Trump had to build a wall under the NEA.
Speaking of national emergencies, student loans are already “on hold” until the end of August 2022 and have been on hiatus since March 2020 due to Covid – thanks to authority used by Trump under the Heroes Act of 2003. This bill allows the president to pause student loan repayments in an emergency. Before Biden extended the hiatus until August last week, it was due to expire at the end of April.
It would be, to put it delicately, an epic act of political malfeasance for Biden and the Democrats to allow this loan forbearance to expire on September 1, two months before the midterm elections. I don’t even have a word for how incredibly defeatist that would be. Romeo killing himself while Juliet naps springs to mind — even though Romeo would look at the Biden administration and say, “At least I had a plan,” before bleeding out.
Canceling student debt is a matter of gender equity, racial justice, and raw political calculus. It centers on three demographic constituencies without which Democrats cannot win. It’s the morally right thing to do, especially in a country where some higher education institutions (or degree mills posing as higher education institutions) are price gouging on students they know are ‘they can just borrow money. And shifting our budget priorities from war to education is smart long-term play for the advancement of human civilization.
To fail to do so — essentially demanding that people resume payments to the federal government just before a national election — is political suicide.