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Of all the things Biden could make a priority, why student-debt repayment?

Student debt repayment is, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, a “high priority” for the administration—which calls into question what isn’t.

Of all the things Biden could make a priority, why student-debt repayment?
[Source Images: Alan Varajas/EyeEm; Phil Ashley/Getty; Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg]

Anyone looking for a succinct summary on the dystopian state of pandemic-era America could do worse than the Dash for Cash.

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On Saturday, December 11, an interlude during a junior league ice hockey game at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Premier Center featured cash-strapped teachers scrambling for their share of $5,000. They got down on all fours, before an entire arena, and scooped up as much cash for necessary school supplies as they could gather. Video of the sad spectacle went viral over the weekend, highlighting the desperate need for investment in America’s education system. But overhauling that system doesn’t seem to be a high priority for the current administration. The Dash for Cash did happen to coincide, however, with a statement about what is considered a high priority for Team Biden as far as education is concerned.

When asked by a press scrum about the student loan payment pause set to expire on February 1, White House press secretary Jen Psaki Psaki gave the following response:

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“In the coming weeks, we will release more details about our plans, and will engage directly with federal student-loan borrowers to ensure they have the resources they need and are in the appropriate repayment plan. We’re still assessing the impact of the omicron variant, but a smooth transition back into repayment is a high priority for the administration.

Not only did Psaki confirm that the president is uninterested in keeping debt payment at bay any longer for students struggling in the pandemic, she emphasized the urgency of those students resuming repayment as soon as possible. The announcement of this dash for student cash seemed to strike progressives as not merely in poor taste, but downright offensive.

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Following Joe Biden’s position on student loan debt throughout the pandemic has been quite the rollercoaster ride. While Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Charles Schumer have publicly advocated for canceling $50,000 in debt per student, candidate Biden landed on the figure of $10,000. Since taking office, the Biden Administration has indeed approved over $12.7 billion of student-loan relief, but that amount is just a drop in the bucket of the $1.6 trillion that American students still owe. As recently as late September, Psaki blamed the lack of further debt cancellation on congressional gridlock, as though it was something Biden wanted. (The president reportedly asked his Education Secretary to explore the possibility of executive action back in April.)

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The latest news seems to clarify, though, that debt cancellation is not what Biden wants, but rather he desires “a smooth transition back into repayment.” Biden’s evolving position on the matter now seems less like a rollercoaster ride than a standing-in-front-of-a-movie-screen-projecting-a-rollercoaster-ride.

Perhaps the reason that Biden has chosen not to further extend the pause on student loan repayment is for the sake of appearances. It could be a show of force, signaling to conservatives that rumors of a social-spending bonanza have been greatly exaggerated. With the press hammering him every day on inflation, it’s a way to demonstrate fiscal responsibility.

However, if his student-loan decision is meant as a show of force, it’s pointed in the wrong direction. Students saddled with debt in the pandemic are also currently dealing with rising prices at the pump. As CNBC reports, a recent survey of 33,703 student loan borrowers found that even among the ones with full-time employment, 89% say they’re not financially secure enough to start making payments after February 1. Meanwhile, it seems like the administration might find more money in chasing down suspicious PPP loans, and taxing the billionaires whose wealth grew to $10.2 trillion during the pandemic.

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Either way, this administration considering student-loan repayment a high priority while dragging its feet on voting rights and many other issues is less a dash for cash than a race to the bottom.

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