Saturday, August 5, 2017

The SIMPLE Act is misnamed. It's really a Federal Sharecropper Enrollment Program for Distressed Student Borrowers

Hello, Americans. If you think you got screwed by Obamacare, brace yourselves. There may be more Congressional skulduggery ahead. A gang of wooden-headed legislators has conspired to introduce a bill called the SIMPLE Act, which, if passed, will push millions of Americans into becoming sharecroppers for the government for a majority of their working lives.

In keeping with Congressional tradition, the bill is known by a tortuous acronym. SIMPLE stands for Streamlining Income-Driven Manageable Payments on Loans--cute! But let's take a look at the guts of this pernicious legislation, and we will see that a more accurate title of the bill would be the Federal Sharecropper Enrollment Act:

If enacted into law, this is what the SIMPLE Act will do:

First, the bill authorizes the Internal Revenue Service to automatically recertify the income of student borrowers in income-driven repayment plans (IDRs).

Second, the bill allows the government to automatically enroll delinquent student borrowers into IDRs. The enabling language is complicated, bu this is how Representative Ryan Costello (one of the bill's cosponsors) described an earlier iteration of the bill in 2016:
Under our bill, the Department of Education would auto-enroll certain borrowers who have missed payments into a lower monthly payment plan in order to reduce administrative burdens and decrease the risk of those borrowers being placed into more expensive plans. 
Admittedly, the bill has some good features. It makes sense for the IRS to certify the annual income of IDR participants rather than force the borrowers to do it themselves. In fact, the Government Accountability Office noted last year that about half the people in IDRs get kicked out of those plans for failing to certify their income on an annual basis.

Second, automatically putting delinquent borrowers in IDRs with lower monthly payments is sensible if the alternative is default. And the bill allows borrowers to opt out of being placed in an IDR.

But here's the overarching problem with the SIMPLE Act.  The bill assumes the status quo for the federal student loan program, and its only solution for people who are overwhelmed by their student loans is to shove them into twenty- or twenty-five year repayment plans.

In other words, the SIMPLE Act is streamlining the process of transforming student borrowers into sharecroppers--bound to pay the government a percentage of their income for the majority of their working lives.  And most people in these plans will be making payments so low they won't even be servicing their interest. People in IDRs will see their debt grow larger with each passing year even if they faithfully make payments for a quarter of a century.

The SIMPLE Act is not a solution to the student loan crisis. Basically, its a form of accounting fraud that maintains the fiction that people are paying back their student loans when in fact almost everyone in these plans will never pay off their student loans.

How will Americans react to being transformed into sharecroppers for Uncle Sam? Not well, I predict. Eventually, student borrowers will rise up in fury. Let's hope they vent their anger at the ballot box and not in destructive acts of desperation.

Look on the bright side. We only have to do this for 25 years. 


References

Andrew Kreighbaum. Bipartisan Legislation Tackles Student Loan Defaults. Inside Higher ED, August 4, 2017.

Press release of Representative Suzanne Bonamici. Bonamici, Costello Introduce Bill to Reduce Student Loan Defaults. September 8, 2016.

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