Thursday, February 7, 2019

The great national shakedown: Student loans are dragging down both young and old

According to New York Times writer David Leonhardt, the Millennial generation is being "fleeced" by an economic system that favors the old over the young. For Millennials, Leonhardt points out, incomes are stagnant, and the wealth gap between Baby Boomers and younger Americans is growing.

"Given these trends," Leonhardt writes, "you'd think the government would be trying to help the young." But it is not doing that, Leonhardt argues. Instead government policy is making it harder for younger Americans to climb the economic ladder.

The biggest example of this myopic governmental policy, according to Leonhardt, is higher education. "Over the past decade, states have cut college funding by an average of 16 percent per student," Leonhardt writes, forcing students to borrow more and more money.

Of course Leonhardt is right. Burdensome student loans are making it more and more difficult for young Americans to buy homes and start families. Literally millions of Americans are not able to service their student-loan obligations and are being forced into long-term income-based repayment plans that can stretch out for two decades or even longer.

But we should be careful about characterizing the student-debt crisis as an outcome of inter-generational injustice because in fact Americans of all ages are being dragged down economically by student-loan debt. As a zerohedge.com writer observed recently:
Though millennials catch the most flack for taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for worthless college degrees that do little to improve their financial prospects in the "real world," for older Americans who take out loans to finance their education later in life, the repercussions can be ten times worse.
On average, the writer reported, student borrowers in their 60s owed almost $34,000 in student loans in 2017, up 44 percent in just seven years. About 200,000 people age 50 or older are having Social Security checks or other government payments garnished due to student-loan defaults. Total student-loan indebtedness by people in their 60s and older more than doubled in just seven years--from $33 billion in 2010 to $86 billion in 2017.

Most elderly college-loan borrowers accumulated debt to finance their own postsecondary studies but thousands of parents took out Parent Plus loans to finance their children's college education. According to Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal, 330,00 Americans, representing 11 percent of Parent Plus borrowers, had gone at least a year without making a payment on their Parent Plus loans as of September 2015.

Insolvent older Americans have filed bankruptcy to discharge their massive student-loan debt, but the Department of Education and its contracted debt collectors almost always oppose bankruptcy relief. In a Kansas bankruptcy action, Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) fought bankruptcy relief for Vicky Jo Metz, a 59-year-old woman who had borrowed about $17,000 to attend community college in the early 1990s and had seen her total debt quadruple in size due to accruing interest.

Put Ms. Metz in an income-based repayment plan (IDR), ECMC demanded. But a Kansas bankruptcy court disagreed.  If Metz entered into a 25-year IDR plan, the court observed, she would be 84 years old before her repayment obligations came to an end. Moreover, her debt would continue to grow even if she faithfully made her monthly loan payments for a quarter of a century. The judge sensibly forgave all the accumulated interest on Ms. Metz's debt, requiring her only to pay back the principal.

We should be careful about framing the student-loan crisis as a burden that falls mainly on the young. People of all ages are burdened by staggering levels of student-loan debt.  And it is the elderly who most merit relief.

Our government could implement some modest reforms to help relieve the suffering of older student-loan debtors. For example, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Clair McCaskill supported legislation to stop the garnishment of Social Security checks due to student-loan default.  And the Department of Education could stop opposing bankruptcy relief for older student-loan debtors like Ms. Metz.

As for me, I will support any candidate for the presidency who endorses substantive relief for the millions of Americans of all ages who have been fleeced by the federal student-loan program. In my view, free college in the future, which Senator Kamala Harris proposes, does not go nearly far enough toward reforming the federal student loan program--now totally out of control.

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